Penang’s NGO’s are advocating a return to the Halcrow Plan, rejecting the SRS Proposal and Zenith BUCG plan which are riddled with flaws and conflicts of interest. The alternative we propose is a holistic-incremental approach to addressing Penang’s mobility and transport problems, taking into account the limited resources of the state.
Principle 1: Cut your shirt according to your cloth
The first principle is to tailor our investments according to our resources. It is foolhardy to overreach and embark on mega projects that could be financially unviable and plunge the people of Penang, of this and future generations, into debt and financial distress. The Penang State Government’s budgeted revenue for 2016 is slightly less than RM700 million, yet it is planning to spend RM12 billion for the PIL and the LRT in the next six years for capital construction and it has not yet taken into consideration the yearly subsidies needed for O&M expenses that can run to hundreds of millions.
O&M = Operation and Maintenance
The Penang state government, since 2008 have prided themselves on their prudent and sound financial management, each year recording a budget surplus.
“Since 2008, we have tabled a deficit budget, but taking into consideration our sound financial practice, increase in the collection & reduced arrears, prudent spending and also the practice of open tender system, I believe we can continue recording a budget surplus this year and also next year”Former Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, November 2015.
By withdrawing public funding from the PIL1, the state immediately saves RM6 billion in construction costs, plus the annual operating and maintenance costs that could run up to RM50 million (7% of revenue in 2016). The next step is to see how to cut down on costs for the public transport system, while achieving maximum coverage for the least investment.
Principle 2: Adopt a sustainable financial model
Penang state government plans to pay for this infrastructure via land sales from reclaimed land, what happens if there is a downturn in the land/property market? We are already seeing a softening of house prices. What would happen in the event of a house price correction? Land reclamation should be a policy of last resort, not first resort, because it also has significant and irreversible impacts on coastal environment, livelihoods of vulnerable fishing communities, and seafood supply to local population. Massive land reclamation is not an environmentally sustainable policy.
The state has also committed to spend over RM6 billion to build the third link tunnel plus three major highways. Zenith-BUGG consortium will be paid via land swap plus toll collection on the tunnel. If the State is able to persuade Zenith-BUCG to replace these highway projects with public transport projects, there would be no need for any immediate land reclamation.
Principle 3: One step at a time – an incremental approach
The state must prioritize what is necessary, affordable, and financially viable and adopt an approach of incremental implementation of the transport master plan. Incrementalism is a development watchword. Deng Xiao Ping described finding the right development path as like crossing a stream by feeling the stones and stepping on them carefully. While we must have a long-term, comprehensive and holistic vision and plan, the implementation must be carried out step by step, programming systematic review and fine-tuning,, learning from successes and mistakes.
Penang state should start with just building one public transport system which can be incrementally expanded in an integrated and responsive manner. The Halcrow Plan has identified a few main arteries for tramlines and a thorough technical and financial feasibility study must be done by a truly independent transportation consultant (not a construction company).
Principle 4: Prioritise public transport
Fourth, prioritise building a robust public transport system over road expansion. The latter only serves to undermine the former. For a public transport system to succeed, we need both the pull and the push factors. Both Halcrow and SRS agree that reaching a 40% public transport modal share will not happen by building public transport alone, however only Halcrow came up with suggestions for limiting the future growth of traffic, while SRS is planning for our traffic to continue growing at 3-4% per year until 2030. New road-building should be extremely selective and cautious to improve local connectivity and feeder routes but should not compete with public transport priorities.
Imposing charges on private vehicle users is a well-tried market-pricing mechanism. In fact, the charges imposed on people who still prefer to use roads can be transferred to subsidise public transport travel. Contrary to the argument of Lim Guan Eng, the chief minister of Penang, that such a policy is undemocratic and elitist, the opposite is true. The rich and those who choose to use private vehicles contribute more to pollution and carbon emissions than the masses who take public transportation. Imagine, a tram carrying hundreds of passengers will remove hundreds of single-occupancy vehicles from the road, reducing carbon emissions. Private vehicle users generate higher external costs for society and should pay for their actions. This is eminently democratic and fair. Climate change is upon us and Penang should be setting its own carbon emission targets and streamlining development and transport policies to achieve them.
Inclusive transport planning means you do not privilege car owners/users, but prioritise public transport that is more comprehensive in coverage and more accessible to a wider population, including the low-income, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
Principle 5: Evidence-based policy and far-sighted leadership
Good policies should be evidence-based and analytically, not politically, driven. The crux of the problem in Penang, like many other small cities, is there are too many cars, with inadequate public transportation, competing for scarce resources. Improvement of public transportation must be accompanied by proven means to decrease the number of LOVs (low occupancy vehicles), increase HOVs (high occupancy vehicles), and public ridership. Such a strategy requires our leadership to adopt a new paradigm and then to communicate and educate our public so they understand this is on only possible way out.