A concerned Penangite has sent in a dozen questions that MPs and Penang state assembly members should raise about the controversial RM46bn transport proposal which is being pushed through despite strong public opposition.
Here is what I received:
The Penang state government is pushing forward with massive transport infrastructure projects as part of a proposal by SRS Consortium. The total cost is expected to be around RM46bn (which includes the RM6bn reclaimed land-for-tunnels-and-three highways swap deal with Zenith Consortium).
Phase one of SRS’ proposal consists of building a six-lane ‘Pan Island Link’ highway and an elevated LRT line. This will be financed by the sale of land on three artificial islands to be reclaimed off the southern coast of Penang Island.
Zenith Consortium is supposed to build an undersea tunnel and three highways to be financed by reclaimed land off the coast of Gurney Drive that the state will grant to it as part of a swap deal.
Brave and responsible politicians, especially those from Pakatan Harapan, need to ask many questions on behalf of the people:
1. Should we scrap the tunnel project?
Zenith Consortium was appointed in 2013 to undertake the construction of three ‘paired’ roads and an undersea tunnel at a total cost of RM6.3bn. At that time, Penang ostensibly planned for a tunnel as it felt the BN federal government might not approve a bridge. Now that Pakatan Harapan is controlling the federal government, will it do the right thing and scrap the tunnel? As the second bridge is underused, won’t the tunnel or any third crossing be just another wasteful project?
2. Should we review the Zenith highways, especially in view of the MACC investigation under the previous administration?
The Penang state government had agreed to pay Zenith Consortium RM6.3bn in the form of 110 acres of reclaimed land in exchange for the company building three highways and a tunnel.
The feasibility studies and detailed design alone add up to RM305m. Of this, RM208m has been paid for the feasibility study and detailed design of the three highways. The remaining RM96m for the undersea tunnel’s feasibility study and detailed design cost has not yet been paid. Work on land reclamation off Gurney Drive is ongoing.
Earlier this year, when the MACC was probing the case, a senior Zenith executive admitted the firm had been duped into paying off RM22million to two individuals who claimed to have high-level connections with the authorities.
In view of this, shouldn’t the Zenith project be reviewed?
3. Should the state government be defending the SRS proposal when the project delivery partner agreement (PDP) has not yet been signed?
SRS (which stands for Southern Reclamation Scheme) is owned by Gamuda Bhd 60%, Loh Phoy Yen Sdn Bhd 20% and Ideal Property Development Sdn Bhd 20%.
The SRS proposal won the bid under a request for proposals to implement the Penang transport masterplan, which had been formulated by Halcrow. A request for proposal isn’t the same as an open tender (even though the state may argue “it is a form of open tender”).
From the RM27bn estimated by Halcrow in 2013, SRS has modified the Halcrow masterplan beyond recognition so that the estimate cost has now ballooned to RM46bn (including RM6bn for the tunnel and three highways under Zenith). SRS Consortium is eyeing projects worth some RM40bn, including RM17bn under its phase one.
NGOs and sustainable mobility experts have asked why the 20-volume SRS proposal is not available online.
As project delivery partner, SRS Consortium will expect a fee of about 6% of the total project cost on top of reimbursable expenses. The PDP arrangement with MMC–Gamuda for the Klang Valley MRT2 has been criticised by the Pakatan Harapan federal government because of costs overruns. How can the PH government still be defending the exorbitant SRS proposal and the PDP model in Penang?
And why are these SRS mega projects incorporated as a fait accompli in the draft Penang Structure Plan 2030, now put up for public feedback, when no agreement has been signed between the state and SRS?
4. Why abandon the public transport policy of “moving people, not cars”?
Before the 2018 general election, the Penang government announced its intention to increase Penang’s public transport modal share to 40%. But they also lamented that traffic congestion problem in Penang couldn’t be solved due to federal control of transport matters including the buses and ferries. Hence, they justified the need to build more highways.
Now that Pakatan Harapan controls the federal Ministry of Transport, why does Penang insist on building more highways, which will surely increase carbon emissions? Why not introduce dedicated lanes for buses (and high-occupancy vehicles) along certain stretches if the government really wants to facilitate public transport?
5. Why the U-Turn by the Ministry of Transport? Why expensive elevated LRT?
In early September, the transport minister announced that the Land Public Transport Commission (Spad) had recommended BRT or trams as alternatives to the proposed elevated LRT system for Penang, calculating potential ridership based on the island population of 800,000.
Two weeks later, the minister apparently made a U-turn and agreed that Penang could have an elevated LRT line. Why is the most expensive (RM8bn) option chosen for a single elevated LRT line, which will incur an estimated RM170m per year in operational and maintenance costs?
What transpired ahead of and during the meeting with Loke? Was there any political pressure? Why is the Ministry of Transport not recommending prudence at a time when the Ministry of Finance is slashing the cost of the LRT3 and MRT2 projects in the Klang Valley, deferring the KL-Singapore high-speed rail project and suspending the East Coast Rail Link?
Will the federal government bail out the LRT system if it proves to be unsustainable later on?
6. Will the DoE ‘rubber stamp’ the EIA for the Pan Island Link?
The Penang government wants the Department of Environment to approve the EIA for phase one of the Pan-Island Link highway. This RM8bn 19.5km six-lane highway project involves extensive viaduct construction and 10.1km of drill-and-blast tunnelling through the hills of Penang. One section passes near fault lines and the Air Itam Dam.
Many Penang residents are alarmed that the Pan-Island Link will degrade the Youth Park and the Sungai Ara Linear Park and increase noise and air pollution near 10 schools.
The Buku Harapan states: “All development projects must comply with international environmental protection standards before being granted approval. Approved or ongoing controversial projects will be reviewed to ensure that they comply with established standards.”
Will the DoE appoint an independent panel to assess the Pan Island Link EIA? Will it seriously consider the thousands of objection letters received? Or will the DoE just serve as a rubber stamp for the PIL EIA?
7. Why sacrifice our fisheries and fisher folk for reclamation?
The PH government promises to be environmentally friendly, but Penang is planning to reclaim three islands off the southern coast of Penang island. The EIA for the reclamation was rejected by the BN federal government in 2017 because it would potentially affect the livelihoods of many fisher folk from all communities.
But the Penang government is now keen to go ahead with the reclamation even though it will degrade our natural coastline, our fisheries and our food security. It will also pollute our seas and certainly harm “life below water” (UN Sustainable Development Goal 14).
When the time comes, will the Department of Environment assess the EIA objectively, or will it just serve as a rubber stamp for the EIA of the southern reclamation plan?
8. Why allow Penang to build a ‘Forest City’?
Penang proposes to reclaim 4,500 acres (1821 hectares) in the pristine southern part of the island. In the Penang South Reclamation Scheme, SRS Consortium plans to build 80,000 apartments on the islands and bring in a population of 300,000 by 2030.
About 80% of the housing will be high-end. Is that the reason why islands are being created – because “sea view” homes command a higher selling price? Why go ahead with this scheme when there is already an over-supply of high-end condos?
9. Who are the buyers?
Will the developers be targeting majority foreign buyers? The Penang South Reclamation will be larger than Johore’s Forest City. How will it be marketed – especially when there is a glut in high-end property? What kind of marketing firms will be used and which countries will they target?
Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had earlier declared his disapproval of the expensive homes in Forest City in Johore: “Our objection is because it was built for foreigners, not built for Malaysians. Most Malaysians are unable to buy those flats,” he said.
So how are these three islands in Penang going to be different?
10. Why not call for a review of these mega transport projects in Penang?
Penang Forum, a broad coalition of NGOs, has been calling for an independent review of the RM46bn transport proposal.
So many mega projects in Malaysia have have been reviewed, stopped and slashed, even when construction is already underway. Why are our elected representatives silent about the urgency to review this high-risk transport infrastructure proposal and the massive reclamation plans? Why the double standards?
11. Why focus on Penang Island and neglect Seberang Perai?
Reclamation and highways will jeopardise Penang’s liveability and tourism industry. Why put so much pressure on Penang island? The chief minister recently announced the Smart and Green Penang 2030 vision, which states that “The Future of Penang is in Seberang Perai”.
So why not prioritise a public transport link across the bridge? Also, Penang Development Corporation owns large tracts of land on the mainland. Why not focus on developing Seberang Perai with proper infrastructure and amenities?
12. Why not solve ‘Botak Hill’, land slips, and flooding problems first?
Penang Island is now famous for ‘Botak Hill’. Last year, the landslide at the Granito project claimed 11 lives, while the November floods took seven lives, damaged a lot of property and brought mud flows into people’s houses. The Penang authorities have demonstrated a poor track record of environmental monitoring and rehabilitation.
So why are they taking on the environmentally risky RM46bn proposal, involving degradation of hill land, removal of forest cover, and disruption of rivers. These will worsen soil erosion and increase the risk of floods downstream.
Seeing that climate change is the new normal, why is the government not prioritising hill rehabilitation, flood mitigation, flood prevention and low-impact, cost-effective mobility strategies?
The implementation of the SRS proposal is not “free” or without cost, as some quarters would like us to believe, but will come at a great cost to the people and the environment of Penang, for generations to come.
If the Zenith tunnel and three highways are scrapped, the money raised from the land reclamation in the north could finance the a cost-effective integrated public transport plan that could cover almost the entire state.
In the ongoing parliamentary and coming state assembly sessions, will any of the politicians we have elected have the courage to ask tough questions and call for an independent review of the controversial Penang mega projects?