Today I feature a response by Penang Island city councillor Dr Chee Heng Leng to a letter that appeared in the press.
My fellow councillor Nicholas Theng basically made two points in his article “Penang transport improvement initiatives being discussed and implemented”.
First, he disagreed that cost is a good reason to ask for a review of the Penang transport masterplan, claiming that it is “secondary compared to the suitability of the proposed system”. I had argued that the high cost estimates of the South Reclamation Scheme (SRS) Consortium’s transport proposal, coupled with the length of time it will take to construct, make it reasonable for us to request for a review of the whole proposal so that we can seriously consider other alternatives.
SRS’ transport proposal is estimated to cost RM46bn in total, and the first phase will include, among other highways and an undersea tunnel, the RM8bn first phase of the Pan Island Link (PIL1) and one RM8.4bn LRT line (from George Town to Bayan Lepas). I had highlighted how the earlier Halcrow transport masterplan (officially adopted by the Penang state government in 2013) was only estimated to cost RM10bn for the public transport component (using modern tram systems and bus rapid transit) and only RM27bn for the whole proposal.
Theng’s second point is that I should not compare the cost estimations of Halcrow’s transport masterplan and SRS’ transport proposal because the former is a “broad-construction-cost-only” estimate and “unsubstantiated and understated in its cost” while the latter is based on “studies carried out by internationally reputable engineering consultants”.
It should be noted however that the chief minister himself has pointed out that the RM46bn for SRS’ transport proposal is also an estimate that can only be finalised after approval is given, an agreement signed (between the state government and the consortium), and “more detailed engineering designs and call for tenders for the various work packages”.
But let us address Theng’s first point. If cost is indeed “secondary compared to the suitability of the proposed system”, we need to ask how is the SRS proposal “suitable” to the transportation needs of Penang’s population? What are the methodologies used to assess the costs and benefits of different public transport systems, and what criteria did SRS use to select LRTs and monorails over trams and BRTs?
Penangites will not be able to know this answer or understand the methodologies used unless the detailed SRS transport proposal is uploaded online for public scrutiny, assuming that this detailed plan contains all the information needed to answer these questions.
As of today, Penangites have witnessed a lack of transparency in the handling of the PIL1 highway. For example, only the environmental impact assessment is currently on public display due to requirements for it to obtain Department of Environment approval. However, even the transport impact assessment, the social impact assessment and surveys that are mentioned in the environmental impact assessment are not publicly available.
Instead of a systematic cost-benefit comparison of various options based on realistic population and ridership figures, Theng gives spurious arguments using selective case examples. It is disingenuous for example to use the Sydney tram line construction as the reason why Penang should not have a tramway system. Sydney’s problems could be due to many reasons, and one report cites inadequate planning and poor governance, with some seeing it as “the legacy of a rushed process designed to deliver an outcome by a politically motivated deadline”.
One could also cite other examples of very successful tram systems, such as the ones in Rio de Janeiro and Kaohsiung, or examples of cost overruns in LRT construction, such as in Hawaii. Likewise, it is misleading to imply that BRTs where buses have dedicated right of way will mean “intentionally cutting road space” and will “upset the logistic needs of businesses”.
BRTs, unlike LRTs, are more flexible, and could also be elevated if necessary. Furthermore, a bus can take 40 cars off the road, while a modern tram can take 200 cars off the road, hence freeing up road space.
Indeed, I accept that there will be disagreements among us, but let us not confuse the issues by conflating different arguments. For example, it is one thing to agree that a “healthy road network” is necessary, but whether or not a 19.5 km PIL1 highway (that consists half of tunnels through our fragile hills and the other half on elevated viaducts) is healthy or necessary is another issue altogether.
For better or for worse, the transport proposal will have vast and lasting effects on Penang’s environment and will affect the lives of all Penang residents as well as future generations. It is therefore important that we are all encouraged to take part in the discussions and debates, and it is in everyone’s interest that these can be done in a civil manner, without name-calling and the use of pejorative words to discredit those who disagree with us.