Under normal circumstances, I would be the first to support any plan to promote sustainable transport in Penang and Malaysia. Unfortunately, I cannot support the Penang transport masterplan as it stands for the following reasons:
1. Ballooning costs: The cost keeps ballooning even before it starts. RM27bn was already an astronomical figure. Now we are told it will be RM35-40bn (The Edge interview with the Penang chief minister). And that is excluding the tunnel, mind you. (A figure of RM6.3bn has been mentioned for that.) These are mega projects by any definition – and we used to criticise Mahathir for those, with justification. Whose idea was it to have a road tunnel, anyway?
2. Massive land reclamation: Because the infrastructure cost is so high, it could involve land reclamation of up to 4,500 acres (up from 4,200 acres reported earlier); which would suit developers fine, of course. What percentage of the homes to be built would be for affordable housing? And what is the state government’s definition of affordable housing now? Still up to RM400,000? In that respect, why does the project delivery partner consortium for a transport masterplan include property development firms? How independent are the land swap arrangements likely to be then?
3. Committing too far into future: The land-for-infrastructure swap deal is likely to commit Penang and future administrations far into the future. If the transport masterplan is sound and there are no adverse environmental consequences, then it should not be a problem. But what if it isn’t? It could prevent future administrations from opting for more sustainable, integrated and cost-effective affordable models.
4. Lopsided plan: The earlier figure of RM27bn comprised RM17bn for road infrastructure and just RM9-RM10bn for public transport. This is lopsided in favour of more roads. Anyway, instead of working on preparing the way for sustainable transport first, as recommended by Halcrow, work is starting on major highways under the land-for-tunnel/highways swap deal as early as mid-2016.
5. Inefficient multi-modality: Halcrow proposed buses and trams for Penang but now there are plans to include monorails and controversial sky cabs and Penang Hill cable cars, the state government’s pet project. This multi-modal system means we need to build and maintain different sets of infrastructure, which require different technical expertise, personnel and spare parts – all of which will probably result in higher costs and less economies of scale.
6. Please, no monorails: From what I hear, SRS Consortium wants to replace two (Tanjung Bunga and Air Itam routes) of the seven tram routes that Halcrow proposed with monorail. (Trams used to go right up to Air Itam and Penang Hill, in the past.) It also wants to add a monorail route from Jalan Raja Uda, Butterworth to Bukit Mertajam. (It has also apparently rejected three of the seven tram routes proposed by Halcrow.)
Sustainable transport experts point out that most cities in developed countries have shunned monorail systems and have opted for trams. New York is the latest to introduce trams: New York trams stage an unlikely comeback (Financial Times). So why are we opting for monorail, when that was not in the Halcrow plan?
7. Inflated population projection?: The transport masterplan proponents appear to assume that the population in 2030 is significantly higher (2.5m?) than what the Department of Statistics projects (1.9m). The proponents appear to be just extrapolating forward into the future based on previous censuses.
In reality, the fertility rate and the rate of net migration inwards are both falling; so the average annual population growth rate will only be 1.4% per annum until 2020 and thereafter only 0.7% per annum. This is much lower than the past annual population growth rate of 2.4% from 2000 to 2010.
If we accept the Department of Statistics figure as more realistic, then this alone makes the transport masterplan fundamentally flawed, especially if it extrapolates up to 2065 and overestimates the population even further, based on past annual population growth rates, which were significantly higher. This would result in an overbuilding of the transport infrastructure required by Penang and hence higher costs than necessary.
It is time to move away from all these grandiose ideas for some distant and uncertain future.
Instead we should come up with a real sustainable Penang transport/mobility masterplan and focus on that, concentrating on what can be accomplished NOW and in the next few years.