BN government refuses to help, so Penang builds tunnel to overcome traffic jams

by Lim Guan Eng

MARCH 14 ― I refer to your editorial and a plethora of articles opposing the proposed 3 separate highway and one third link tunnel project awarded by the Penang state government by open competitive tender recently for RM6.3 billion. I hope that you will allow the state government to explain the rationale for this “desperate” effort to decongest traffic congestion on the island and bring about smoother traffic flow on the mainland of Seberang Perai.

I used the word “desperate” deliberately because for the five years that the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) state government has been in power, we attempted to implement a public transport system in Penang. Initially we hopped on to the federal government’s proposal of an elevated monorail even though we felt that reviving the tram system would be the preferred option for Penang as George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage city.

Every year during the federal budget wish-list, we put in the monorail proposal without any positive response. Out of desperation, we thought outside the box by paying Rapid Penang to give free bus services in the George Town heritage city enclave ― which was extremely well received. We extended this programme to free bus services back and forth from the mainland to Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone and Balik Pulau during peak hours again paid for by the state government.

The federal government refused to respond when we proposed our local councils to run bus services. Our final effort to pay the federal government RM10 million yearly for Rapid Penang to offer free bus services throughout Penang state during peak hours was unceremoniously rebuffed.

Much as we prefer the public transport option, you have failed to highlight that public transport in whatever form is the exclusive prerogative of the federal government. Even if it is funded by the state government, nothing can be done without the sanction of the Federal government. Therefore, regurgitating the homily that we should be investing in public transport instead is akin to beating a dead horse.

As the federal government appears determined to choke our roads to death, the Penang state government decided to act decisively. We cannot do nothing and wait passively. That is why we decided to improve our road network by building alternative roads in the most heavily congested areas. And also connect to the mainland to bring both parts of the state closer as well as ensure that the Seberang Perai Utara area is not left out of economic growth.

Let the people decide

The PR Penang state government will listen and submit to the will of 1.6 million Penangites. Consequently, the state government has taken the unprecedented step of engaging with the public and civil society since the proposal was first mooted in 2011. This was no rush job. We are still continuing such town hall meetings.

The project, which was first announced in 2011 when the tender was called, consists of a 6.5-km underwater tunnel connecting Gurney Drive to Bagan Ajam, a 12-km dual carriageway between Tanjung Bungah and Teluk Bahang, a 4.2-km bypass connecting Gurney Drive to Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway and a 4.6-km bypass connecting the same expressway to Bandar Baru Air Itam.

The state government had awarded the tender to Consortium Zenith BUCG, a special purpose vehicle company set up by a joint venture between local company Construction Zenith, China Railway Construction Corporation Ltd (CRCC) along with Beijing Urban Construction Group, Sri Tinggi Sdn Bhd and Juteras Sdn Bhd. Beijing Urban Construction Group, a major Chinese construction company that built the Beijing Olympic Stadium Bird Nest, and CRCC built most of China’s railroads including the highest railroad to Tibet. These are not RM2 companies as alleged by our detractors.

No to monorail, yes to tram

Should PR win power in Putrajaya, PR is also proposing a tram system throughout the state linking both the island and the mainland. BN’s monorail is inappropriate for a world heritage city like Penang, as its elevated structure will destroy Penang’s charms. As a tram system on level ground would match Penang’s heritage, new alternative roads are required so that existing roads can make way for tram lines.

BN’s monorail project will not happen even if BN wins in Penang because of two reasons. One, the monorail would not be permitted by UNESCO and its construction would cause George Town to lose its UNESCO World Heritage city status. Two, BN has never fulfilled its promise when the monorail was first made by former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2006. Neither was this promised delivered when Datuk Seri Najib Razak became the prime minister. Clearly we have to wait until Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim becomes the prime minister, then only then will there be a tram system.

No to entry charges to George Town, Penang.

I wish to categorically deny wild allegations that these four road improvement projects were not included in the proposed Public Transport Masterplan (PTM). The only difference is the timing. The PTM called for the completion of the tunnel by 2025-2030 whereas the state government hopes to bring it forward by 2023, a difference of two years. The 10 year period required to build the tunnel third link is to satisfy all the feasibility and safety requirements including environmental protection. Should environmental safeguards not be complied with, then the project would simply not proceed.

PR has firmly rejected extreme calls for entry charges for all vehicles entering George Town, Penang as PR is committed to free movement of people within Penang as well as those from outside Penang. To adopt this “Singapore model” to reduce traffic congestion is elitist at best in reserving George Town for existing residents and discriminatory at worse by only ensuring that the well-off can enter George Town, Penang.

The federal government was aware of this proposed project as far back as April 2011 when both Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Chinese Premier Wen Jia Bao witnessed the exchange of Memorandum of Understanding attended by me for these 4 highway and tunnel projects in Kuala Lumpur. The open competitive tender was called in November 14, 2011 and public engagement with the public was carried out in 2011 briefing them of the project.

The evaluation and recommendation of the winning tender bid was made by two committees headed by the Penang State Secretary Datuk Farizan Darus and the Penang State Finanical Officer Datuk Haji Mokhtar Mohd Jait without any involvement of the chief minister. The entire tender exercise was a transparent and accountable process.

Out of 24 participants, only one objected, nine supported whilst the remainder sought more information

How can these four project be done with amazing speed when the first of the highway projects will be completed after 2017 and the underwater sea tunnel by 2023-25? The long construction time is due to the need to comply with Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) requirements. Failure to comply with EIA would mean that the four projects would not go on.

The formal contract is still subject to discussion and is expected to be formalized and signed in a few months time after the next general elections and it will not proceed if rejected by the people. Input from public consultations and town hall meetings will assist the state government to refine our position when the contract is formalized over the next few months.

The state government was pleasantly surprised that at the last town hall meeting on March 10, 2013, out of the 24 who gave their views only one objected. Nine had supported whilst the remainder 14 sought more information. What was noteworthy was that all the younger members who spoke supported the proposed project whole-heartedly as they said they did not want to spend their life stuck in traffic jams.

The Penang state government is determined to invest in the future so that our young do not grow up as part of the traffic jam generation.

Can Teng Chang Yeow explain why BN sold the 940 acres of reclaimed land in Tanjung Pinang at only RM1 per square feet?

Further, the final tender price is not the estimated RM8 billion but RM6.3 billion awarded to the lowest tenderer, Consortium Zenith BUCG Sdn Bhd. No cash will be paid but payment will be made in the form of 110 acres reclaimed land in Tanjung Pinang. This reclaimed land was approved by the previous BN state government, just as former Penang Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon had also supported a half tunnel project from Tanjung Bungah to Butterworth.

For BN Penang Chair Teng Chang Yeow to claim that the reclaimed land is non-existent is a shameless lie as BN had approved the reclamation of 940 acres at a shocking price of RM1 per sq foot and 10 per cent of the land to be given to the state government. Can Teng explain why BN had sold the land at such a low and illogical price of RM1 per sq ft? The PR Penang state government had managed to increase the amount of land to be given the state from 10 per cent to more than 20 per cent, which will be used to finance the construction of the four major highways.

The horrible traffic congestion two weeks ago on the 1st Penang Bridge due to repairs works reminds us of the importance of having this 3rd link for the future. Whilst the three highways will assist in mitigating the traffic congestion accessing to Batu Ferringhi, around George Town as well as to Bandar Baru Air Itam and Farlim area, the 3rd underwater sea tunnel serves another function to spur economic development in Seberang Perai Utara (SPU).

The Penang state will not sit back and do-nothing on traffic congestion by taking the easy way out in blaming the federal government for failing to provide public transport. Neither will we adopt an island-centric approach but instead develop a state-centric approach that encompasses the needs of the mainland. If there is a bridge linking the island in both Seberang Perai Tengah and Seberang Perai Selatan, there should be a link at Seberang Perai Utara to advance economic growth.

* Lim Guan Eng is the chief minister of Penang. This article first appeared in The Malaysian Insider.

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