Below is the statement by the Consumers Association of Penang opposing the highways-tunnel mega project followed by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s response.

The CAP statement:

Abort tunnel vision

CAP would like to reiterate most emphatically its opposition to the latest mega-project proposed by the Penang state government to resolve the state’s traffic problem. The project comprises a 6.5km undersea tunnel from Gurney Drive to Bagan Ajam in Butterworth, a 4.2km Pesiaran Gurney-Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway bypass, a 4.6km Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway-Bandar Baru Air Itam bypass, and a four-lane 12km road linking Tanjung Bungah with Teluk Bahang.

In justifying the construction of the roads, the argument that has been advanced is that they will expand the existing network of roads. By dispersing the traffic, they will thereby, it is argued, relieve the pressure on the existing roads and thus open up more space for public transport and pedestrian walkways.

The argument is an attractive one, but unfortunately it is misconceived. Countless studies have proved conclusively that building more roads (or even widening existing roads) is only a short-term solution as the new roads will invariably attract more traffic and soon the roads will be congested again. In the case of Penang, with 100,000 new vehicles hitting the roads every year, the culmination of such a process will be sooner than anyone can anticipate.

As for the undersea tunnel, it has been suggested that it will further ease the trans-channel traffic. But this blithely ignores the fact that this will result in more motorized traffic on the island and create more congestion on the island’s roads. The new roads can only afford temporary relief to this situation. What is often overlooked is that the island too has a limited carrying capacity at any given time and no consideration is given to this fact.

Moreover, if the concern is to alleviate the cross-channel traffic, the fact is that the second Penang Bridge is not even operational yet. Given that its impact on traffic is yet to be seen, one wonders why the Chief Minister is in such haste to push through the construction of an undersea tunnel which is beset with risks and adverse effects.

The terms under which the project has been agreed to are also controversial. Apart from receiving a 30 year concession period, the developers will also benefit from 110 acres of reclaimed land as payment. This land will appreciate tremendously in value in the coming years. Penangites will not benefit from this added value but the developers will, many times over their initial cost of construction.

But perhaps the Chief Minister is right after all to conclude that a third road link will be necessary. After all, who should know better the impact of his own transport policies than the Chief Minister himself? In view of the fact that the whole thrust of his policies is directed to prioritizing private motorized transport over public transport, it won’t be long before congestion begins to build up on the second bridge. In short, a third road link will be necessary because the Chief Minister is intent on pursuing policies which will create the very gridlock requiring relief.

There are also other disturbing features about this package of projects. The payoff for the consortium undertaking the project is 110 acres of reclaimed land. By agreeing to this, the Penang government has given no consideration to the consequences of further land reclamation along Penang’s coast even though the adverse consequences of earlier reclamation projects have clearly blighted the island’s coastline. Such a reckless indifference to the environment is shocking, to say the least.

Questions have also been raised about the financial viability of those undertaking the construction. However, more important is the safety of such tunnels. The 1996 Chunnel fire shows the limits of human technical ingenuity and engineering skill. The Chunnel – the underwater tunnel beneath the English Channel which links England and France – was regarded as the eighth wonder of the world and had been exhaustively tested for safety, including extensive modelling and full-scale fire tests, before it was opened up to traffic. Yet when the fire broke out, experts were hard put to explain how the fire occurred. In Malaysia, there was a reported vehicle fire occurring every month, for 8 consecutive months in 2012. Such an incident could turn into a national disaster if it happened in the proposed undersea tunnel. In addition to inherent risk, given the absence of a well-developed culture of safety in our society, is it not a grave risk to embark on such a project? Moreover, questions have also been raised as to the expertise and experience of those undertaking the project in building undersea tunnels. While they may well have undoubted expertise and skills in other types of construction, the real question is their expertise in the specific field of undersea tunnels.

While we are mindful of recent statements that the state government is intent on going ahead with the project, we strongly urge them to reconsider the whole issue. Such a reconsideration must involve a rethinking of the whole basis of the current transport policy which privileges the owners of private motor vehicles at the expense of public transport commuters. All talk of a “Penang Paradigm” is meaningless without this paradigm shift.

Media Statement – 18 March 2013

The Chief Minister’s response:

Open Letter By Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng To Consumers Association of Penang(CAP) and other aligned organizations who oppose the Penang traffic decongestion projects of 3 highways and one under sea-bed tunnel.

21 March 2013.
Encik S.M. Mohamad Idris,
Chairman Of CAP.

Dear Sir,

We refer to your recent statement opposing the Penang state government’s traffic decongestion projects of 3 highways and one under sea-bed tunnel comprising a 7 km undersea tunnel from Gurney Drive to Bagan Ajam in Butterworth, a 4.2km Pesiaran Gurney-Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway bypass, a 4.6km Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway-Bandar Baru Air Itam bypass, and a four-lane 12km road linking Tanjung Bungah with Teluk Bahang.

The state government has openly engaged with both the public and civil society since these projects were first mooted in 2011 and throughout the period of open competitive tender process until it was awarded this year. Whilst we welcome public views, such inputs and even criticisms from our detractors must always be based on objective analysis and facts, not subjective outbursts and sentiments. As the old adage goes, opinion is free but facts are sacred.

The Penang state government has taken the unprecedented move of consulting with the various NGOs and the public through dialogues and even holding town hall meetings in the full glare of the mass media. The process itself is historic for it has never been done in Malaysia.

Unfortunately you have never attended a single one of such dialogues or meetings. For this reason, we fail to see how you can oppose these proposed projects objectively and factually without the benefit of hearing our side. We would therefore like to take this opportunity to once again extend a personal invitation to you to a meeting where we can address the concerns you have expressed. Our doors are always open to you.

However should you refuse to accept our invitation, let us state why your criticisms of these proposed traffic decongestion projects were made subjectively out of mere sentiments.

One, we agree that public transport is the most effective mechanism to realize the objective of moving people and not moving vehicles. But why has CAP failed to acknowledge the strenuous efforts made by the Penang state government to make public transport the mode of choice for 1.6 million Penangites?

Whilst the state government would prefer to revive our tram system compatible with George Town status as a UNESCO World Heritage city, we had decided to go along with the Federal government’s promise for a monorail made in 2007. Regrettably, the Federal government has decided to play partisan politics at the expense of the public by stubbornly refusing to fulfil their promise of a monorail.

We then decided to think outside the box by offering free bus rides in the heritage enclave of George Town followed by a Park & Ride system to and fro from Seberang Jaya to Bayan Lepas and Balik Pulau at a cost of nearly RM3 million yearly. When this was well-received by the public we wanted to extend free bus services during peak hours throughout the state by paying Rapid Penang RM10 million yearly.

This RM10 million offer was rejected by the Federal government without any reason given. Similarly our proposal for Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang or MPPP to set up our own bus companies to provide public transport was rejected by the Federal government. At no point did CAP support the state government’s efforts nor questioned the Federal government for not accepting the money payment made by the state government to provide free bus services.

Clearly, the Federal government intends to choke Penang to death with traffic congestion. Due to Penang’s success as the most liveable city in Malaysia, the number of tourists pouring to Penang has surged dramatically. The usage at the Penang Bridge is on average nearly 80,000 vehicles daily, which can increase to 108,000 vehicles daily during public festivities.

As a responsible people-centric government, we refuse to do nothing, play the blame on the Federal government and wait to be choked to death by traffic congestion. We are left with no choice but to build highways to alleviate the traffic congestion at the most critical areas such as Paya Terubong, Tanjung Bungah and the inner George Town city area. To disperse traffic and avoid creating bottlenecks brought about by cars seeking to enter or leave Penang at the 2 bridges, there is a need for a third link across Seberang Perai Utara(SPU).

The state government can not build a bridge across the mainland because Federal government approval is required. However, no such approval is necessary for an under sea bed tunnel.

Further there is a question of equity as it is only fair that the residents of SPU are not denied a third link, when residents in Seberang Perai Tengah and Seberang Perai Selatan were given the 2 bridges. Having a third link would also ensure balanced development for SPU to ensure that they are not left out of economic growth.

The state government is equally concerned about the impact both on the environment and the livelihood of fishermen as we are committed to making Penang a green state. Such concerns have been fully addressed by requiring that a full Detailed Environment Impact Assessment(DEIA) be complied with. Should the necessary sanction not be obtained from such a DEIA report, then the projects will simply not proceed. Unlike other Federal government projects, the consultant preparing the DEIA will be appointed by the state government and not the contractor.

The operations of Penang Port will also not be affected as the tunnel will be built safely below the sea-bed. Many experts have opined that in terms of environmental impact, a under sea-bed tunnel has less adverse impact than a bridge.

CAP must bear in mind that the tender was awarded by an open competitive process that commenced in 2011. From an estimated cost of RM8 billion the magic of open competitive tender reduced it to RM6.3 billion. Contrary to wild allegations by BN, the paid up capital of the four companies that won the tender as a consortium and will be signing on individually with the state government is RM4.5 billion and not RM2.

For CAP to claim that we should not engage in the land swap of 110 acres of reclaimed land in Tanjung Pinang to finance this RM6.3 billion project raises serious questions why CAP did not sternly criticize BN for selling the reclaimed land at give-away rates of RM1 per square foot in 1999? Let us restate again that the evaluation and recommendation of the winning tender bid was made by two committees headed by the Penang State Secretary Dato Farizan bin Darus and the Penang State Finanical Officer Dato Haji Mokhtar bin Mohd Jait without any involvement of the Chief Minister. The entire tender exercise was a transparent and accountable process.

The 30 year toll concession period was given only for the tunnel and not for the other 3 highway projects which will be toll free. This toll concession for the tunnel is unique and the first in Malaysia in that there is no traffic volume guarantee given to the companies.

The state government agreed to a toll for only 30 years as we did not want to go to a state of war with the Federal government by not charging toll, as then the Federal government will have legal grounds to stop the tunnel project by claiming that we are deliberately sabotaging the toll collection for the 2nd Bridge. That is the reason why the state government has fixed the toll rate for the tunnel at the same rate as the 2nd Bridge.

Again if CAP is opposed to the 30 year concession by the Penang state government, why then did CAP not voice any objections when the toll concession for the 2nd Bridge is for an even longer period at 45 years?

For CAP to question the expertise and the technical ability of the companies concerned is again a subjective expression of mere sentiment as it blithely ignores the fact that Beijing Urban Construction Group and China Railway Construction Corporation Ltd (CRCC) are major construction companies that built the Beijing Olympic Stadium Bird Nest and most of China’s railroads, including the highest railroad to Tibet. Whilst no one guarantees that there will be no accidents, if that is the yardstick, are we going to stop building roads or aeroplanes just because there are accidents?

Even the Public Transport Masterplan(PTM) advocated the building of the under sea-bed tunnel with the proposed completion of the tunnel by 2025-2030 whereas the state government hopes to bring it forward by 2023-25. The 10-12 years period required to build the tunnel 3rd link is to satisfy all the feasibility and safety requirements including environmental protection.

Due to the length of the project’s completion of 10-12 years, planning and work has to start now. It is misleading for some parties to give the impression that work will start immediately and the tunnel will be completed in a few years time. Just as the 2nd Penang Bridge should have been built 10 years ago due to increased traffic usage, we must plan ahead not for ourselves but for our future generation.

We must not turn the next generation into a traffic jam generation to suffer what we have suffered due to lack of foresight and long-term planning. We may not benefit from these projects but our children and grandchildren will. That is our responsibility – to prepare the future for our young.

Thank you.

Yours faithfully,

LIM GUAN ENG
CHIEF MINISTER

As for me, I maintain that any solution that promotes dependency on private motor vehicles is unsustainable in the long-term.