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Is Penang still leading?

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Penang can lead again: Just discard the SRS transport proposal and return to the original Halcrow plan, writes Eric Cheah.

When Penang fell to the opposition in 2008, Penangites were ecstatic because we thought real change was coming.

We did see many positive changes. For one thing, the political change in Penang encouraged folks in other states to vote for change – and in the 2018 general election, we embraced the “New Malaysia”.

After the election euphoria subsided, the new state administration settled in and went about expediting its “Penang Transport Master Plan” or PTMP. This grand proposal by SRS Consortium, however, is different from the transport masterplan put forward by the original transport consultants, Halcrow.

The SRS proposal will cost RM46bn, and some believe it could even exceed RM50bn – excluding the cost of the land reclamation to create three artificial islands. We are still being told that this proposal will solve all traffic congestion woes.

But the SRS proposal is extremely unlikely to deliver all that it claims it will.

Not only that, the environmental risks will be significant. The six-lane RM9bn Pan Island Link highway will pass close to the Air Itam Dam (through PIL 1) – and that itself presents a major risk.

The SRS plan could also threaten the financial stability of the state and degrade fishing waters.

It is bad enough so many fish have already died along Penang’s northern coastal waters – attributed to the unusually high presence of phytoplankton resulting in reduced dissolved oxygen. (See this article “Reclamations and Red Tides”, written by Filipino marine biologist Angel C Alcala, who discusses the sudden blooms of certain types of planktons, red tides and land reclamation in coastal areas.)

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Shockingly, the 2015 proposal by SRS Consortium, which was selected to implement the Halcrow masterplan, deviates significantly from the Halcrow masterplan, adopted by the state government in 2013.

The Halcrow plan was actually hatched by AJC Planning Consultants Sdn Bhd, Halcrow Consultants Sdn Bhd and Singapore cruise consultants, who were engaged in 2011 by the Penang government and the Northern Corridor Regional Implementation Agency to come up with a Penang transport masterplan at a cost of RM3.2m.

After almost two years of research, meetings and workshops with the public, Halcrow came up with its blueprint that would include about RM10bn worth of public transport infrastructure:

  • Three major tram routes totalling 60km radiating from George Town:
    • to Tanjung Bungah in the north
    • to Bayan Lepas in the south
    • to Air Itam/Paya Terubong
  • Two shorter tram lines in loops within George Town
  • Three bus rapid transit routes (with dedicated bus lanes):
    • Butterworth to Machang Bubok
    • the Southern Corridor from Butterworth to Simpang Empat
    • a third route serving the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone
  • One commuter rail line from Pinang Tunggal to Nibong Tebal
  • Ferries:
    • Butterworth to George Town
    • Butterworth to Gurney/Queensbay
    • Queensbay to Weld Quay

With a bit of modification, the original Halcrow plan will still cost around RM10bn and provide an integrated public transport system for both Penang island and mainland Penang (see “How to slash Penang’s transport infrastructure cost to RM10bn“).

So far, I have read a couple of feeble explanations from the present administration why the Halcrow plan is not being implemented.

  • It is a conceptual plan whereas the SRS proposal has a funding model ie the land reclamation to create three artificial islands
  • Penang people will never give up their cars!

The first argument can be easily dismissed. If the state does not take the Halcrow plan seriously, then of course it remains a conceptual plan!

The second sounds reasonable at first. If the whole public transport system is not revamped, drivers would definitely not want to give up their cars.

But then the state government sidelined the Halcrow plan just like that in favour of the SRS proposal. Does this not reflect a failure by the state government to take the more sustainable Halcrow plan seriously?

We need traffic solutions – yesterday – or preferably within the next couple of years, not hallucinatory solutions that will take almost a decade to realise.

What many cannot avoid seeing now is that Penang is leading in the wrong areas – landslides, floods and dead fish.

But I believe Penang can lead again. Just discard the SRS proposal and return to the original Halcrow plan.

The Pearl of the Orient can and must shine again.

Eric Cheah is a former national chess player and social activist who has fought for the rights of Vietnamese workers who were exploited, trafficked or unfairly prosecuted.

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