A BRIDGE OF NO RETURN
Everybody can see that Penang needs a new linkage, but the controversy is, where should the linkage be sited and what sort of linkage? A bridge, a tunnel, a causeway, a combination? At least, there should be a controversy, but judging from the deafening silence over the 2nd linkage and the total lack of public discussion over such a crucial, not to mention, costly infrastructural project, you would think there is no controversy. Or that this project has no impact on the state.
Penang International Airport @ Kuala Muda
Penang is therefore the unique state which clearly benefited from the currency meltdown, which put paid to the whole relocation idea! And, you know what? The renovation has upgraded the facilities, and the airport is fully able to accommodate the increased volume of traffic, and with the 911 incident, will not suffer KLIA's over capacity. The surprise is that that decision was made without any extensive study and debate, as if plucked out of the blues, like some prophetic inspiration. Without reference to economic, geographical or political rational or its impact on the Penang (tourist) economy. The Chief Minister and the sole DAP Opposition did not stand up for Penang on this issue. The same thing is now happening to the proposed 2nd linkage.
The present Barisan Nasional State government is not a model of environmental awareness or decision making, from their disastrous track record on planning and environmental issues and irresponsibility in Penang. Projects like the harsh-harsh plans to commercially exploit the Penang hills, and the failed attempt to turn the Penang Race Course into prime commercial property, all thwarted accidentally by the upset defeat of Lim Chong Eu in the 1990 General Elections.
Take the disgraceful One-Stop affair, where a public road, a playing field and green-lung, set aside for residents in a residential development were summarily and arbitrarily acquired and handed to a powerful private developer for a commercial shopping complex, which nobody asked for. The main opposition party DAP (as usual) was asleep and so were the so-called "NGOs" who did nothing, and the whole episode smacks of corruption and "city-hall" politics and kickbacks!
Today, the complex is limping on, hardly a glowing success among shopping complexes, a sight for eye- sore, poorly maintained, but has succeeded to create a new and monumental traffic nightmare which never existed.
Imagine one of the better and quieter residential districts (Pulau Tikus), over-night converted into- a block of shopping complex cum hotel cum office cum condo development, opposite 2 important and busy hospitals, with 6 schools just a stone's throw away, and smaller institutions (like RTM) in its perimeter, if not immediate vicinity, and with a busy service station next to it, surrounded by an array of shops and 2 hawker centers which were formerly residential properties, and throw in another Condo complex across the road.
Imagine the traffic mess, or do they have any imagination? Great (may be) for the adjoining property owners, not so great for the general public, and don't forget the parking headache for the residents. Now, as an admission of their total failure in planning, the authorities are forced to erect a traffic-crossing, which is just a stone's throw from a major traffic inter-section, just to enable the pedestrians to cross that narrow stretch of road. And to top it off, that road is one of the two only arterial routes connecting the high density residential north of the Island to the city! If ever there was an ingredient for a traffic nightmare, that is one! Did the "city fathers" see the mess that they were creating? Hardly! The shopping complex is hardly even up-market! It could win a "how not to plan a shopping complex" award!
1969 General Elections
History has a strange way of coming full circle. And as they say, those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat the same mistakes. In the run up to the 1969 General Elections, which saw the old Alliance Party pitted against an array of opposition parties under an electoral pact of DAP, Gerakan, PPP and (the lesser) Partai Rakyat, the main protagonists in Penang State was the Alliance Party and Gerakan. Then, led by the defunct Dr. Alatas-Chong Eu-Chee Khoon collective leadership. One of the main campaign issues in Penang was the perceived corruption of the incumbent State Administration (under the then Chief Minister-Wong Pow Nee); and one of the issues of corruption was the alleged politically incestuous relations between the local multi-millionaire, Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew and the Alliance (Penang State) Government. The late Tan Sri Loh, was a leading Alliance member, being a prominent leader of MCA, an Alliance Party component.
The Election campaign focused, among other issues, on the siting of a petrol station at the ground-floor of the hotel-cum-office complex erected by the property tycoon, then known as Merlin Hotel. Allegations of favouritism and corruption, bad city planning, at allowing the siting of the petrol station purportedly endangering the occupants, ignoring that next to the hotel was already sited another petrol station belonging to a third party. Incidentally, the Gerakan won a resounding victory in that Election, capturing the State Government, and as they say, the rest is history.
History Repeats Itself
Yet, today, hardly 30 years later, the very same Gerakan party which toppled that "corrupt" Alliance Government, repeated the Alliance environmental "bad planning" in allowing the erection of a busy shopping complex next to a petrol station. The only difference is, now, it is a bigger complex, with shopping, hotel, condos and surrounded by hospitals, schools, shops, hawker centers, in a residential district and at the cost of closing a public road and playing field. This is testimony of the principle of, "do what I say, don't do what I do!" And, that public memories (at least electoral ones) are short, very short! By the way, before some bright-spark points out that the decision over the One-Stop affair was made by the "city" as distinct from the State Government; the State Government is effectively the City Government, which it appoints, it is un-elected! But that is another "controversy."
But, we are digressing! Where should the 2nd linkage be sited, to the north or to the south, as suggested by the Chief Minister? That is the question, as Shakespeare would have posed! To answer that, we must determine the rational of a second linkage! Is the one bridge not enough? Well, to answer that question, the following factors must be considered.
The present bridge is over-crowded, at least at peak hours.
The present bridge has provision for the expansion of a third lane.
There are bottlenecks at the entry and exit to the present bridge.
There are bottlenecks at the arterial roads to and from the present bridge, especially on the Penang Island side.
Complete neglect in setting up any semblance of a mass rapid transport system for the City State.
There is traffic congestion on the Island.
The Ferry Service has failed to pull its weight.
The demographic distribution on the Island.
The belated, Coastal Road.
The proposed ring roads.
The limited land area on the Island.
Now unless these factors are digested and considered, a headlong rush to implement the 2nd linkage on political rather than economic, infrastructural and social factors, will be disastrous in the long run, and compound the present problems. "Political", because their's is a phobia not to accept any opinion that does not emanate out of their narrow political gene-pool and cronyism. Of course, there are brilliant minds in Government who make decisions based on anything but these public interest considerations.
As more and more people are working on the mainland and live on the Island, even as far as Sungei Petani, Kedah and vis-versa, there is daily, a heavy traffic out flow to and from the Bridge and to a lesser extend, the Ferry. The discharge from the Ferry is not so much a problem, as most Ferry passengers are destined for the City Center or Butterworth Town. The Bridge discharges for all the centers of population concentration. The Island traffic situation is also in a mess. Public transport is in disarray, it is neither mass nor rapid. See the number of single occupant vehicles in traffic jams, everyman for himself, and we know what happens to the hindmost! The city fathers' solution to the Island's traffic congestion, is literally, make the vehicles go round in circles.
After the experience with the DAP over the scandalous "auto-pont", the Gerakan State Government has sworn off, the "auto-pont" solution for the traffic bottle-necks. In fact, the "auto-pont" concept is actually ideal for the highly built-up condition of Penang roads. A couple of strategically sited "auto-ponts" could, like a heart by-pass relieve the congestion. But, you know what, the State Government is afraid of implementing another "auto-pont" not because the DAP leader was right when he ridiculed it, as the "goesten" fly-over (As a footnote, not a single vehicle has stalled on the "auto-pont" or got stuck on it. In fact, without the "auto-pont" the traffic situation at the Green Lane/Batu Lancang intersection could be worse. But because in the ensuing controversy, the cat was let out of the bag by Government backbenches; that it was over budgeted! It cost more than it should! Therefore, it would be admission of corruption if future tenders for the "auto-pont" which would now come under intense scrutiny, could expose this fact! Especially, as erstwhile Gerakan comrades have defected to the MCA, another component of the Barisan National.
Mass Rapid Transport
Talk of a mass rapid transport system for Penang, was what it was, Talk! As serious as the equally headline catching and irresponsible statement by the first Gerakan Chief Minister of Penang, that "gold" had been discovered off the coast of Tanjung Tokong!
The Ferry service, which has been "privatized" is not pulling its weight. The wholly pedestrian ferries have been scraped and the terminals are lying in waste. The fleet of ferries have been neglect, some sold off, most are old and no new ferries have been introduced for a good 25 over years. A political decision was probably made to neglect development of the Ferry service, so that it was no competition to the fledging Bridge, due to the uncertainty over the financial viability of the Bridge. As it turned out, they need not have bothered.
Penang's demographic distribution are identifiable at 5 major centers, the Air Itam-Paya Terubong townships, the Bayan Lepas Industrial Zone and township, the Green Lane-Batu Lancang sectors, the Northern Coastal belt and the old Georgetown town center. To make matters worse, Bayan Lepas, Georgetown and the Green Lane-Batu Lancang sectors are located the only three exits from the Island, the Ferry (Georgetown), the present Bridge (Greenlane-Batu Lancang) and the sole airport (Bayan Lepas). It is notorious that connecting these 5 major centers, there is gridlock! Put succinctly, the arterial roads, Northern Road, (connecting the Northern Coastal belt to the City), Air Itam-Dato Kramat Road (connecting Air Itam-Paya Terubong to the City), Jelutong Road (connecting Bayan Lepas to the City), Green Lane-Scotland Road (connecting Bayan Lepas to the City and the Northern Coastal belt) are clogged, at the best of times, and it only needs a long weekend or a small accident to make matters worse. And the Green Lane-Scotland Road link virtually receives the full weight of traffic from the mainland.
After having been directly responsible for the problem, erecting the greatest architectural obsolescence, the Komtar, and approving un-wanted shopping complexes haphazardly, the State Government now talks of a shift to "mini- Putra Jaya"! Presumably, a "vision" if it can be called one, to move the government centre to, of all places, Bayan Lepas! An admission of its exasperation with the traffic problem surrounding the Komtar. It is a wonder if there is any central planning under the Gerakan Government?
Under the first Gerakan administration of Lim Chong Eu (now Tun) the "vision" was to concentrate the State Government at the Komtar Complex- "to make it easy" for the public to access State Government departments! Based on that "vision" the City Government was "forced" to move into the Komtar Complex at the cost of millions of rate payers' dollars, abandoning its historical and beautiful complexes at the Esplanade! Even before the "ink was dry" as it were, the "new" Gerakan upstart leadership, talked (first the City Administration) of moving the City Government out, now the State Government. Enough to make Lim Chong Eu turn in his grave, if he were dead! Already, the Komtar Complex (the tallest building in Penang,) is half-occupied. If the State and City Governments move out as threatened, Komtar will gain another reputation, the biggest White Elephant in Penang. It is interesting that at one time, they even proposed moving the subordinate courts to the Komtar, luckily better counsels prevailed. It does have a potential as a nesting place for swallows in the new and lucrative "bird's nest" industry!
Penang Race Course
It can be seen that the present
traffic problems in Penang are due in no small measure, to bad or no planning.
The fact is the government keeps things to itself, and gives any information,
grudgingly, as if, "father" knows best! An example, is the so-called,
"outer-ring" road! It is shrouded in mystery, but we see the work literally
"crawling." That adds to the massive traffic congestion. The vested
interest groups are again eyeing the Penang Race Course!
A certain group led by the former Chief Minister, some years ago, tried to capture the Committee of the Race Course, backed by a listed company tycoon. The Penang Race Course represents prime real-estate, but it is the few real green-lung of the City and intensive commercial development will cause untold environmental and traffic problems. The appetite of certain business interests is insatiable. The latest excuse to take over the Race Course is a supposed proposal (also shrouded in secrecy) to construct an outer-ring road through the foothills at the perimeter of the Race Course. Why the Race Course could not be spared, has never been answered?
It is more than apparent, that before we talk of a linkage, we must see how it will impact on the traffic problem in Penang Island, in particular. The Island traffic is becoming intolerable during public holidays and long weekends, when you get the impression the whole of Malaysia has decided to descend on the Island. The wise Island dwellers, stay home such times. Therefore, the question, how would the 2nd linkage impact on the already terrible traffic situation?
If there is no appreciation of the dynamics of the issue, it will aggravate the situation. First of all, siting the linkage to span the Nibong Tebal/Bayan Lepas districts is a no-no suggestion. It may be "in-sync" with the Chief Minister's "mini-Putrajaya" pet scheme, but it will be a monumental infrastructural mistake! The Southern part already has the present bridge, building another there means it will double the congestion coming from the South. It will mean a longer bridge, as that point is even further between the Mainland and the Island. That part is deep waters. It means added costs, and a lot of technical problems. It also means, it has to be a bridge, no other alternative as the engineering problems of any other alternative (such as tunnel) will be insurmountable and beyond our shallow pockets! Already the traffic problem of the discharge from the present bridge is beyond the State Government's ability to handle, imagine just doubling that!
And anyway, why site the bridge south, when the south already has one? Surely the wiser move is to site one at least to the North, separate and divert the northern traffic from the south, so that people who wish to go north can chose to use the north bridge. The talk about shipping and silting are side issues, compared to the problems created by a South bridge.
On the other hand, there is the prospect of a shorter bridge, as the bridge (or linkage) can be shortened if, the project is packaged with land reclamation! The area contemplated, will be slightly north of the "tanjung," and is shallow sea, same with the opposite side on the mainland. A reclamation of a few miles on both sides, will not only narrow the gap, but also create valuable real-estate, and will be cost effective if privatized, now! In fact, the present bridge is also sited on shallow waters, and could and should have been a combined land reclamation cum bridge project. The present bridge would have been shortened by half, if this were implemented. If there are still doubters, just look at the two islands that are now naturally building up, just to the north of the main span. But, of course, saving costs was the last thought to cross the minds of the "planners" who were probably planning for a cushy retirement.
The real issue
In fact, the "planners" did have in mind the need for an expansion of the bridge, therefore the provision for the expansion a third-lane, it would amount to a 50% increase in capacity. That would solve, at least the issue of capacity on the bridge for a good decade at least. But is that the, or the, only issue? I suggest, not! In fact, the issue is not so much the capacity of the bridge, but more the problems after crossing. The average experience of crossing the bridge is that there is a bottleneck, or several bottlenecks, after crossing the bridge,at the "tunnel" leading to Green Lane and at the Scotland Road inter-section with the Race Course. An extra lane would not alleviate that problem, in fact it could aggravate matters if the attendant problems are continually neglected.
Therefore, the real issue is how a new linkage or bridge would impact on the traffic congestion in the State, especially, the Island. If the State Government's approach to the Coastal road project is an example of the Gerakan Government's priorities and the gap between planning and implementation we have reason not to be complacent. In fact, the Coastal road project was already on the table of the first Gerakan State administration, probably a proposal of the little known Penang Master Plan, it was envisioned to connect the Airport to the City via a coastal linkage. Today, 33 years after, it is still to be realised!
The problem is immediate and urgent, building a wrong linkage at the wrong site will lead to future problems in Penang. Penang by its very nature, survives on its infrastructure and its environment. Nothing is calculated to negatively impact a tourist as a 2 hours traffic jam to the Airport, or a busy executive missing a flight. Yet, if this indifference continues, a major problem will build up, and getting from point A to point B will take hours, like in Kuala Lumpur. Sitting behind a line of traffic jam, will be a daily experience. Already the morning jam along the Greenlane/Scotland Road towards the City is a daily chore for motorists. If this indifference continues, the next time you are caught in such a jam, just hold your expletives for yourself, after all, you asked for it!