The Penang state government’s contention – that Hong Kong has three tunnels; so why can’t Penang have one – is flawed as it is not comparing nutmegs with nutmegs.
For a start, while Hong Kong (1101 sq km) and Penang (1046 sq km including mainland Penang) have almost similar areas, Hong Kong (popn 7.2m) is one of the most densely populated places in the world – 6516 people per sq km. Penang (popn 1.6m), on the other hand, has a population density of only 1450 people per sq km. So Hong Kong is over four times more densely populated. No comparison there.
Hong Kong has a highly developed public transport network of trains, buses, trams, ferries and minibuses. Over 90 per cent of daily travelling in Hong Kong is on public transport – the highest rate in the world. The state of public transport ridership in Penang, by comparison is pathetic, almost laughable! In Penang, we haven’t even explored and tapped into public transport options. No comparison there.
After tapping into public transport usage, Hong Kong has built three tunnels. Are these viable and sustainable? Recent reports have shown that congestion is plaguing the tunnels. The more tunnels are built, the more they will prove to be insufficient and will eventually choke up. Then what? The answer does not lie in road-based tunnels for private motor vehicles but in putting in place cross-channel public transport links.
Penang is now shrouded by thick smog. This should prompt us to think more about curbing emissions. Facilitating the use of private motor vehicles by building a tunnel and more highways will only worsen air quality – and contribute to climate change. But sadly, environmental concerns do not rank highly in this International, Intelligent City.
The state government argues that a tunnel would ‘open up’ northern mainland Penang for more ‘development’. Development for whom? And what kind of development? More super condos for developers to build and for the wealthy to induldge in speculation, further driving up property prices on the mainland? More private motor vehicles choking the streets of the mainland, which are already filling up with cars? No thank you to that kind of ‘development’!
The Penang government maintains that the tunnel will be the third link, after the first and second Penang bridges, conveniently omitting to mention that the ferry service was the first link and the proposed tunnel would actually be the fourth link. The ferry service, however, has been neglected and there is no political will by the federal government to expand it; instead all eyes are on the mega construction contracts for bridges and tunnels and the tolls to be collected and the multibillion ringgit land-for-tunnel swap deal. THAT is the real motivation for the tunnel. Developers meanwhile are salivating over the prospect of more high-end property development on the mainland. In Hong Kong, there was once a proposal for better ferries to ease tunnel congestion. Why don’t we push for an improvement in the ferry service?
But what happens 12 years after the tunnel is built and the roads along Gurney Drive are choked while Jelutong Expressway experiences gridlock? Do we build more tunnels for cars then like in Hong Kong? Why not a rail link right from the start, linking the new high-speed railway station in Butterworth to the island, as an urban planning expert familiar with Penang has suggested?
It is ludicrous that the feasibility study for the tunnel is being undertaken by the tunnel developer after the award of the tender and after its controversial inclusion in the Penang transport master plan. The manner in which it was included in the plan suggested that the tunnel was not the masterplan consultants’ idea. (I witnessed the consultant asking a Penang state exco member whether the tunnel-highways mega project should be included in the plan. So much for these consultants and their RM3.2m masterplan.)
Is the Penang state government aware that public protests have erupted in Hong Kong against land reclamation, forcing the scaling back of original plans?
On 5 October 2003, over 1,000 protesters dressed in blue marched on the Central Government Offices calling for a halt to reclamation work in the harbour. They also promised to follow up with a three-pronged protest next month using land, sea and air to get their message across. The march was one of several protests in recent weeks over harbour projects,…
In an effort to soften opposition to the reclamation project, the government proposed that the reclaimed land above the underground transport infrastructure could be used to construct a world-class waterfront promenade. (Sound familiar? Think of the linear park planned for Gurney Drive.)
In October 2003, Greenpeace said that the Central reclamation would create 580,000 cubic metres of toxic silt, 63% of which was classified as “seriously contaminated” by the Environmental Protection Department. The activists were repelled when they attempted to collect mud samples from the Central reclamation site for analysis. The Government was accused by Greenpeace of using “cheap and outdated” dredging methods during reclamations which leak toxic waste into the harbour.
It stood accused also of dumping the dredged toxic waste in outlying island sites near an artificial reef created to protect marine life such as the Chinese white dolphin. Fishermen reported that average catch had been cut by half since the reclamation started. The Government responded that reclamation “would not cause irreversible marine damage.”
In the case of Penang, the fishing grounds will be destroyed by land reclamation near the tunnel project and there are major concerns about how dredged material will be dumped. Questions are also being asked as to why the Penang state government (that’s us, the public) will have to absorb the substantial expense of dredging five years after the Seri Tanjung Pinang Phase 2 land reclamation project (linked to the land-swap deal for the tunnel project).