This was the sign at the Butterworth ferry service after 3.00pm on a weekday, last year. Most of the time, only one to four ferries are in service. At nights, even during school holidays and weekends, only one ferry after 10.00pm!
Last year, I blogged about the ferry service, complaining about the delays and the slashing of the number of ferries. I also tweeted a lot about the poor service.
Now, the federal government has asked the Penang state government to submit a detailed proposal before it hands over the recently privatised ferry service to the Penang state government.
The ferry service is operated under Penang Port Sdn Bhd, which was privatised by the federal government to Sea Terminal Sdn Bhd, a firm controlled by tycoon Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, for a paltry RM170m. Imagine that!
Penang Port Sdn Bhd also controls the rest of Penang port.
Penang port should never have been privatised to Sea Terminal in 2014, especially when the state government had expressed an interest in taking over its operations.
Now that the federal government seems open to the idea of taking the ferry service back from Sea Terminal and handing it over to the state government to manage, Putrajaya should not stop there. It should also give the port operations to the state government to manage.
There is no reason to keep the potentially profitable port operations under Sea Terminal while the loss-making ferry service is handed back to the Penang state government. Don’t ‘cherry-pick’ what is profitable for the private sector and pass the unprofitable parts back to the state.
Not only that, the federal government should hand over the first Penang Bridge back to the state. Come on, you guys have earned much more from the bridge tolls than what it actually cost plus all maintenance work carried out so far.
If we add the bridge cost (reportedly RM800m – but privatised for RM550m?), the expansion cost to three lanes in 2009 (RM586m), the replacement of 117 cables on the mainstay (say, over RM100m) and regular maintenance costs, how much would we get? That depends on how much the bridge is billed for annual and routine maintenance work.
By now, the tolls collected since the bridge was opened in 1985 are probably in excess of what has been spent on the bridge – or should I say, what should have been spent. In 2009, Samy Vellu revealed that the Penang Bridge had raked in RM1.7bn so far (probably from 1993 to 2009). What would the figure be by now and where has all that money gone? Extrapolating from that, I would think total toll collected would be in the region of RM2.5bn.
(Some background: The bridge was apparently privatised in 1993 for just RM550m in return for a 25-year lease. Someone told me that when the Penang state government had expressed interest in taking over the bridge back then, they were allegedly quoted a much higher price, perhaps closer to RM1.0bn – is this true?)
And while you are at it, give the RapidPenang bus service back to Penang. More background here: not long before 2008, following a sustained civil society campaign calling for improvements to the privatised ‘cowboy’ mini-bus service, the then BN administration in Penang said it wanted to set up a state bus corporation. This would have involved buying lots of new buses. But when Putrajaya got wind of it, it quickly set up RapidPenang under the federal government – and the contract for new buses reportedly went to the well connected Scomi back then.
The ultimate goal today should be the creation of a Sustainable Transport Commission/Authority for Penang. If the state has all transport options under its control, then it will be able to use the profits from the Penang Bridge, parking fees and fines in the state to subsidise more sustainable transport options such as buses, light rail, trams and bicycle lanes.
Such a state-run Commission would also be line with the global trend of decentralisation so that we don’t have the ridiculous situation of someone in Putrajaya deciding whether or not to approve a new bus route in say, Bukit Mertajam.
That said, the ferry service has great potential as a major transport option seeing as most of the state is only a few kilometres away from the coast at most. There is no reason why more ferry terminals cannot be built all across the island and the mainland.
For example, a Butterworth to Tanjong Bungah ferry service would eliminate the need for many to use the bridge and choke up Green Lane and Tanjung Tokong. Or what about a leisurely George Town to Batu Ferringhi ferry ride?
Now that the MPSP on the mainland is coming up with extensive new bicycle routes, these bicycle lanes should also be connected to the ferries so that people have a cycling option from Butterworth to George Town and beyond.
It just needs more creative thinking to tap the full potential of the sea transport (as a transport mode to bypass the choked roads) and to integrate that with other public transport options.