Part 4: Why bulldoze through the Penang tunnel project?

Ahmad Hilmy and Lim Mah Hui question the need to rush the massive project without proper reivew

AUGUST 1 — This is the fourth article in a series to explain why Penang State Government should get an independent review of the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP).

Why does Penang need to rush to have the 7.2km undersea tunnel project when the original Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) officially adopted by the state government clearly states that it is not an urgent priority? Why this haste when the survey of Penang’s traffic volume by UK-based engineering consultant Halcrow showed that cross-channel traffic in 2011 accounted for only 7 per cent of total state traffic during peak hours?

The first draft by Halcrow that was presented sometime at the end of 2012  to the Penang Transport Council (of which Dr. Lim was a member) showed the undersea tunnel may only be needed towards 2030.  However  for some reasons, in the final draft in 2013, Halcrow brought the date forward to 2025.

The public was told by the state government that the tunnel was needed because it could not get federal approval to build a third bridge across the channel or to obtain approval to take over ownership and operation of  the ferry service. 

But now that Pakatan Harapan controls both the state and federal governments, it is in a position to consider cheaper and environmentally friendlier forms of public transport. This notably includes improving the ferry service or/and possibly having a rail link on one of the existing bridges.

Despite all these, Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow has again brought up the issue of the tunnel and other mega infrastructure, asserting them to be a priority for his administration to solve the island’s traffic problems. The undersea tunnel project would connect Gurney Drive on the island to Bagan Ajam on the mainland.

It is planned to be built along with the 3 main highways  comprising the 10.5km  north coastal paired road from Tanjung Bungah to Teluk Bahang, as well as the 5.7km Air Itam-Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway and 4.1km Gurney Drive-Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway paired roads.  In total, these four projects are estimated to cost RM 6.4 billion.

Many Penangites would love to use the ferry service if it is efficiently managed and brought up to for example, the standard of the Hong Kong–Kowloon ferry service. Pedestrian usage of the ferry service has been dwindling over the years because it was infrequent, unreliable and not pleasant. A proper study should be made on the cost of upgrading the ferry service to acceptable standards.

Presently, the rail service of KTM, which has improved significantly, unfortunately ends at the Prai/Butterworth station. It is poorly integrated with the ferry service. It takes almost one hour for passengers to cross from this railway station to the ferry terminal at Weld Quay on the island, thereby discouraging people from using trains as an entry mode to Penang Island.

This is another compelling reason to improve the ferry service.

Additionally, the state and federal authorities working in coordination should look at the feasibility of providing a rail link on one of the bridges between the mainland and island. A cross-channel commuter train would be much better than constructing yet another bridge for cars. It would also cut travel time considerably and encourage people especially those on the island, heading to or coming from Kuala Lumpur, to use the train instead.

For all the above reasons, the current Penang government which promises competency, accountability, transparency and openness should have greater public engagement and participation before bulldozing through those mega projects

* Dr. Ahmad Hilmy is Associate Professor, USM. Technology cluster – transport system and Dr Lim Mah Hui is a former professor, international banker and Penang Island city councillor

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