It is time for Penang to scrap the Samy Vellu tunnel.
Why do I call it the Samy Vellu tunnel? Because the idea for a bridge-tunnel in Penang was originally mooted by then Works Minister Samy Vellu in 2001 – yes, 17 years ago. Back then, I wrote a piece (‘The Parking Lot of the Orient’) for Aliran Monthly opposing the 9.2km cross-channel road link estimated at a cost of RM2.3bn from Bagan Ajam on the mainland to Bagan Jermal (near Gurney Drive) on the island as it would choke the island with cars.
As things turned out, the tunnel idea was scrapped. Instead of a tunnel, a second bridge was built from Batu Kawan on the mainland to Batu Maung on the island. (In the process, a certain well-connected firm bought hundreds of acres of would-be choice land in Batu Kawan near the site of the bridge on mainland Penang at a time when the state was under BN rule).
Samy Vellu’s tunnel-bridge idea was buried but it was resurrected when the Penang chief minister signed an MOU in the presence of then China Premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Najib in Putrajaya on 28 April 2011. The state government then regarded it as a great honour to put forward this idea for a mega project on an international stage.
But take note that only a day earlier, 27 April 2011, the state government commissioned Halcrow to come up with a Penang transport masterplan.
This clearly means that it was not the Halcrow consultant that came up with the idea for the tunnel, which was actually Samy Vellu’s idea resurrected in a slightly different form. Instead, Halcrow had to insert it into the plan as a fait accompli, but the consultant qualified it by saying this would only be something to consider around 2030. So the tunnel wasn’t a priority.
Incidentally, the state government should make public once again which parties submitted responses to the “open tender” or more likely its request for proposals (for the tunnel, three highways and what-have-you) and what those responses were. Were they all bidding to construct a tunnel? (To me, an RFP is not the same as an open tender, where all the parties bid for the same thing, but the state government argues that an RFP is “a form of open tender”.)
The 7.2km tunnel idea was a useful play before the 2013 general election – just as former Penang Chief Minister Dr Lim Chong Eu’s original Penang bridge plan was usefully trotted out in general election campaigns from 1974 tol 1982 before the bridge was completed in 1985. Vote Pakatan if you want a tunnel? Seriously?
A road tunnel is not a good idea as it will only encourage more cars to flood the island and create even more jams on the island. It should be scrapped.
Meanwhile, with SRS Consortium’s expensive shopping list of transport infrastructure deservedly in limbo now, it is time to focus on realistic public transport for the more immediate future.
In particular, let’s look at implementing bus rapid transit (which incidentally is a key ingredient of the Halcrow masterplan) involving Rapid Penang (and an existing private bus network on the mainland). It is more cost effective and a lot easier to implement. Dedicated bus lanes would be a good start.
I understand Rapid Penang was trying to come up with an app for its buses. But there is an excellent public transit app, a journey planner, already out there called Moovit (one of its board members was a Waze founder). Download the app and check it out. It has the Penang bus numbers and choices of journey routes. Think of its as a ‘Grab/Uber/Waze’ app for public transit. If we can improve on it by integrating Rapid Penang’s long overdue real-time information, it would be an even more useful tool.
The BN federal government should not get all sanctimonious. If it had provided funding for transport infrastructure (not for extravagant mega projects but for really sustainable mobility solutions), the Pakatan-led Penang government would have no justification to come up with fanciful ‘fantasy island’ plans via highly problematic swap deals calling for massive land reclamation.
The BN federal government should tell us why the Penang ferry service has been long neglected with only a skeleton service of up to four ferries (fewer during off-peak hours), when in the 1980s there were a dozen ferries running.
In fact, from the 1960s onwards, the ferry service (the first link) used to subsidise the Penang port operations. But after the bridge (the second link) was completed, the ferries were neglected. This (deliberate?) neglect had two effects: it forced more commuters to use the underutilised bridge and when that reached near full capacity, the poor neglected first link (the ferries) provided the justification for a third link (second bridge) and now a fourth link (the proposed tunnel).
And instead of the ferries subsiding the port as in the past, the port then had to subsidise the neglected ferries after the first bridge was completed. In the end, the port, now privatised, hived off the ferries, now running at a loss, to Rapid Penang. They call this “privatisation of profits and socialisation of costs/losses”.
If we had an expanded ferry service, especially if the bus services linked up more seamlessly with the ferries, we would truly have a more sustainable solution to move people not cars. This is where the BN federal government failed us.
There is another reason why it is a real pity the ferry service has been neglected. Back then, the ferry operators were building up local skills in ferry maintenance and construction. Just imagine, if we had expanded the ferry service using local skills to build new ferries, we could have built up a real ferry construction capability and even exported ferries around the region. An opportunity lost.
For the medium term, we should look at expanding the rail network, linking up to the fairly new KTM Komuter network from Gurun to Kamunting (which also serves BM and Butterworth) as well as the electric trains from Gemas/KL to Padang Besar. Again, why hasn’t the BN federal government connected these KTM train services to the island via a cross-channel rail link?
The BRT or even the rail system can be connected to the island on one of the existing bridges or from the new Penang Sentral.
Speaking of which, I don’t know why MRCB were in a hurry to complete the huge Penang Sentral terminal on the mainland Penang seafront before the transport masterplan could be crystalised or implemented. It is like putting a great big cart in front of a horse that hasn’t even grown up.