The RM8bn mega tunnel-and-highways mega project mooted by the Penang state government is cause for much concern among those who desire a more sustainable long-term solution for the state.

For one thing, it panders to the interests of those with private motor vehicles and will result in even more congestion for Penang in the long term.

It is even more surprising that the state government is going down this route when the Penang transport masterplan, which was supposed to be finalised and made public early last year, is still under wraps.

But one thing is clear: the consultant for the Penang transport master plan (Halcrow) had revealed during one of the workshops in 2011 that most Penangites surveyed desire more sustainable transport options and not more highways etc.

The consultant had come up with two options: a highway-based option and a ‘balanced approach’ (which focuses on improving public transport). Under the highway-based option, the consultant had to include the tunnel-highway-based option because that was what the state government wanted. I myself overheard him asking a Penang state exco member if the project was indeed on. (After all, the state government is paying the consultant RM3.2m.)

Not surprisingly, most people at the workshops opted for the public transport-based ‘balanced approach’. One of the questions asked by Halcrow in the survey was, “Do you agree that the Longer Term Transport Vision should be based primarily around building new roads?” Of the 800 people who responded to the questionnaire, only 34.2 per cent agreed to this long-term vision while 57.0 per cent disagreed and 8.8 per cent were undecided. “This compares with a total of 82% of respondents who supported the improvement of public transport through selecting the Balanced Approach Vision,” the consultant noted. So why is the state government riding roughshod over the majority view and pushing through its tunnel-and-highways mega project?

And how is this mega project going to be financed? By a land swap? If so, how much reclaimed land will be involved and where is it located exactly? Developers and contractors must be salivating at the prospect of lucrative property development projects on even more super prime reclaimed sea-front land. Is this the real reason for this mega project? How much would the gross development value be for this reclaimed land compared to the RM8bn tunnel-highways cost? These questions demand answers in line with CAT.

It is not fair for the state government to use the RM8bn mega project as a bait to win votes. While I can understand that many among the public are concerned about the present congestion, they are not being presented with alternative more sustainable options for the long-run.

On the one hand, the Penang Green Council, set up by the state government, is looking at how to encourage the public to reduce the state’s carbon footprint; but on the other hand, the state government wants to push through this unsustainable tunnel-and-highways project, which will result in increased emissions from private motor vehicles. Is the state government oblivious to this glaring contradiction? Are the Penang Green Council and the Penang Transport Council (were their views even considered?) mere greenwash initiatives for the state government to look good?

It is a fact that new highways and roads quickly fill up with traffic. Just look at the increasing congestion along the Jelutong Expressway. Look at how the additional lane along the Penang Bridge has rapidly filled up.

Why not do the groundwork now for more sustainable transport options instead of putting in place infrastructure for more private motor vehicles that will be hard to remove later?

The state government conveniently says it can’t do much about public transport because it is a federal matter. (If the state can’t do anything about public transport, how did it come up with the Bridge Express Shuttle-bus Transit, a commendable initiative in collaboration with RapidPenang?)

But now, not a few people believe that the prospect of Pakatan taking over Putrajaya is not impossible. Why then is the state government rushing to make an announcement about tunnels and highways at this time, just weeks before the general election – when it could introduce real improvements to public transport if it captures Putrajaya? Is it pandering to the influential developers’ lobby, some of whom are believed to hedge their bets with both sides of the political divide? Or is it stuck in a 20th century time warp with misguided visions of ‘development’ based on more cars and highways and (half-empty) skyscrapers – you know, the BN type of thinking?

It is unfortunate that the Penang state government is muddying the real desire for change in Putrajaya by dangling such an unsustainable mega project as bait. It is a short-sighted recipe for a longer-term congestion nightmare. (To show that it is really different from the BN, Pakatan should be campaigning instead on the back of a pledge to improve public transport and promote sustainable transport options throughout the country.)

Most disappointing.