This official interview with state executive councillor for Local Government,Traffic Management and Flood Mitigation Chow Kon Yeow has appeared at a good time as public discussions are gathering momentum with a growing range of apolitical civil society organizations and NGOs asking that the state government reconsider the Big Bang project which they have developed by their consultants, the SRS consortium, for an admitted total of RM46bil for a wildly ambitious construction program projected to handle the transportation requirements of the state for the next 50 years. (Other informed estimates set the taxpayer burden at close to 50% higher.)
It is our intention to comment on a number of points advanced by Mr. Chow in a follow-up article in the coming week. For your convenience, you will notice that the items to be discussed are identified by two asterisks and a number for your later reading convenience. We now invite you to enjoy Mr. Chow’s presentation.
A Properly Financed Transport Plan for the Long Haul
With little support coming from the federal government, Penang has the unenviable task of figuring out how to finance an ambitious transportation plan.
Traffic in the state causes Penangites headaches, but none more so than state executive councillor Chow Kon Yeow.
Having held the Traffic Management portfolio since the landmark 2008 general election, Chow is fully aware of what an effective public transport system will mean to the state and its inhabitants. “As a government, demands and expectations are placed on us to resolve traffic congestion. Yes, a future system may be very costly *1* and there is the issue of how you are going to support it but sometimes, if you think too far ahead, you won’t get anything done. So it’s about striking a balance,” Chow says.
That balance, he goes on to illustrate, is at the heart of what the state is aiming to achieve through the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). The plan, estimated to cost RM46bil in its entirety, is designed to meet the needs of the state until 2065 *2*. “The question people ask is why we aren’t following the Halcrow plan *3* . It must be understood that the Halcrow report was a conceptual master plan without any further study on constructability, implementation and feasibility. There is no financial architecture or details on how to implement it. *4*
“The federal government has more resources and should step in to help but… even when we ask for things like polis bantuan (auxiliary police), we don’t get their support. Even our two priority projects – the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and Pan-Island Link (PIL) *5* – come under federal jurisdiction, but we are going ahead anyway,” Chow says.
He points to the three proposed SRS islands covering over 4,100 acres as both a means of funding new transit networks *6* and an avenue of growth for the state. (SRS Consortium is the delivery partner for the PTMP). “It basically involves cost and what motivates us is that the cost (of PTMP) has been covered by the islands. On top of that, this land offers opportunities for future growth. It needs to be looked at as a package,” he explains.
Under PTMP, the islands will come up in the first phase of the project, with SRS being consulted to secure bridging finance so work on the Bayan Lepas LRT and PIL can take place simultaneously. Land parcels on the islands will then be sold to cover the capital expenditure (capex) of the new transit networks, ensuring that future generations of Penangites will not be saddled with the repayment of long-term debt to third parties – an issue reflected in extensive toll concession periods for a number of major highways in the country.
“If the state finances the capex of all the new systems, then in the future the operators won’t have to worry about (recovering) the capex and will only have to cover operational and maintenance costs. In this plan, the state is the asset owner and when we choose an operator, the system is, in a sense, given to the people,” *7* Chow says.
Better, Cheaper, Faster?
Trams, Chow concedes, will cost less than LRTs to construct and maintain, but pose different problems to the state. “We have looked into trams, but the cost (BCF quoted) does not consider factors like maintaining the current number of road lanes. If you are to build a dedicated tram lane, then you probably want to replace the road lane you take up and go beyond ROW (Right-of-Way), which means acquiring land and also, compensating shops and houses that are affected,” *8* he says. (Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has since echoed these sentiments, stating that “rows and rows of shophouses” will be affected under BCF.)
With PTMP, encroachment and land acquisition are held to a minimum, Chow says, and issues like moving utility lines and the instances of tram accidents with other modes of transport can also be avoided. Maintaining an adequate number of road lanes was also crucial as private vehicles will inevitably still make up the bulk of road users. “Even if you build a complete system, you will be catering to only 40% of the people, which is what our aspiration is. *9* What about the other 60%? There has been a lot of criticism that the ridership on LRTs in KL was only achieved years after their expected targets, but that is better than not achieving it at all,” he says.*19*
On the issue of elevated highways, a concept which has been met with chagrin from groups of Penangites, Chow acknowledges that it will be aesthetically unpleasing. “Of course, aesthetically, it is definitely not as pleasant as it would be with no highway. But the same people complaining about this may also be complaining about traffic jams every day. Costs and the scale of the roads proposed have also been raised as concerns. *11*
“Yes, at this moment in time, the highways are probably ‘over-designed’, where now, only two lanes may be needed but six are being planned and so on. *12* When you build something that is this costly, you want it to cater to future needs and have that return over a long period of time. You don’t want to build something that you have to rebuild in 10 years,” Chow says, using the Penang International Airport as an example of targeted capacities being reached even before expansion work was completed.
And although the idea of towering elevated structures near residential areas is met with unease, Chow says existing elevated roads in the state – like the 2km elevated portion of Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah – have helped disperse traffic. *13*
All in all, Chow says the state recognises that both the critics of PTMP and its advocates have the best interest of Penang at heart. “We are coming from different platforms. [Penang Forum members] are still in our Penang Transport Council and are given the opportunity to look at the documents *13* and given the space to go through everything to come up with a convincing alternative. Until then, we will note that civil societies have their concerns but the state is accountable to a bigger population and our responsibility is to a wider audience,” he says. *14*
With more and more issues coming to light, like a Universiti Sains Malaysia archaeology team being brought in to study possible multi-century artefacts at the Sia Boey site and Penang Forum sending a contentious, pre-emptive warning letter to the Unesco World Heritage Centre in Paris, it is clear that the debate on the future of transport in Penang is far from over. *15*
- Penang Forum argues back in our October issue.
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About the Penang Monthly and Institute.
A publication of Penang Institute, the Penang Monthly endeavours to be the mouthpiece of Penang and an inspiring read for the curious Malaysian.The Penang Institute is the public policy think tank of the state government of Penang. Established in 1997 as the Socio-economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI), it has now been rebranded to better reflect the aspirations of the state to transform Penang into an international and intelligent city.
The Penang Institute is governed by a board of directors with the Chief Minister of Penang as its chair. It houses more than 20 researchers and writers, and is currently led by Executive Director YB Zairil Khir Johari.
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