Our guest writer today is Dr SP Choong, who has been involved in sustainable transport initiatives in Penang for many years.
There is now enough public information on the Penang transport proposal submitted by SRS Consortium for us to raise some serious question on the government’s rationale for proceeding with this flawed mega project.
The original lack of transparency on the part of the government in informing the general public is puzzling.
The forgotten Halcrow report
Phase one of the Pan Island Link (PIL1) as part of the transport proposal has finally been exposed as a hastily conceived project, proposed by a contractor and two developers, which deviates significantly from the Halcrow transport masterplan adopted by the government.
The Halcrow report was prepared by a neutral transport consultancy and its recommendations are in line with global trends in transport planning to reduce traffic congestion.
SRS transport proposal
Instead of placing the emphasis on increasing connectivity through better public transport, the SRS proposal is following the outmoded practice of building more highways to solve traffic congestion(remember the unofficial slogan Moving People, Not Cars?!). Notably, it is to be built at enormous cost, about five times the estimated cost of the Halcrow public transport recommendations.
Three islands plan
The most significant change is the land reclamation plan by SRS to create three artificial islands off the South coast of Penang Island. The reason given for the state government accepting it was that, as an opposition state back then, we were unlikely to get funding to build the necessary infrastructure.
The reclaimed islands were to be a valuable land bank to be sold to pay for the expensive transport infrastructure. The PIL would later be extended to the proposed reclaimed islands thus enhancing their land value.
Fresh rationale for land reclamation
But since Pakatan Harapan took over the federal government, the rationale for reclaiming the three islands to raise money is no longer tenable. So Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow has quickly come up with another argument – that the three islands will be needed to expand the land bank for the state.
The original argument for this expensive project seemed a pragmatic compromise when Penang was an opposition state even if it sacrificed many of the objectives of the Halcrow report.
The rationale now, however, is different. We are building this enormously expensive infrastructure to ensure that the reclaimed islands will become a valuable future asset. So it now seems the long-term objective of developing a sustainable transport system for the state is only secondary.
Bucking the world trend in transport planning
Is it possible that the policymakers are ignorant of the fact that every city in the world suffering from traffic congestion is putting its best efforts into reducing private car use in favour of public transport, improving connectivity, and encouraging eco-frienfdly access for pedestrians and bicycles. Chow seems to believe that he can defy the global trend of solving congestion in George Town by building more six-lane highways at the taxpayers’ expense!
Environmental and social impacts
Apart from the dubious long-term effects on traffic congestion, we have to consider the impact of this plan on the urban and natural environment of the island, the blight on public parks, and the visual pollution of heritage landmarks like the Kek Lok Si.
The noise and dust that will be generated during the blasting to create 10.5km of tunnels through granite hills will disrupt the lives of hundreds of residents living in the vicinity of the tunnels.
SRS estimates that the land value of the reclaimed islands will more than pay for the road works and other transport infrastructure. But we know that land values are not always predictable. If they do not rise to expectations, we shall be landed with a huge debt for us to pay.
A promise to review all mega projects?
Given the constant reminder that our finances are in a parlous state, why are we choosing such mega projects when cheaper and less risky alternatives are available.
Dr SP Choong is coordinator of the Sustainable Transport Environment for Penang advocacy group