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Proposed Penang Island LRT: Blessing – or curse?

Sebuah setesen LRT di KL

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Who will bear the operations and maintenance costs if ridership projections are not met, wonders Eric Cheah.

The plan for the proposed elevated light rail (LRT) in Penang Island has been put up for public display and feedback in Komtar and nine other public places.

Some Penangites think that it is high time Penang enjoys such “modern” public transport, citing the mass rapid transit system in Singapore and Hong Kong or the monorail and modern trains in Japan.

But how “modern” will the Penang Island elevated light rail be? If launched in June 2020, it would be completed seven years later ie 2027.

Under phase one, the route begins in Komtar in George Town and heads south, stopping well outside the Penang Airport.

Under phase two, it will then go through eight stations on all three proposed artificial islands to be reclaimed off the southern coast of Penang Island. This makes us wonder whether the elevated light rail is ultimately meant for Penangites – or for the 446,000 expected to live on the three islands (but where are these people coming from?)!

We are also told that it will take 38 minutes from Komtar to the airport. When I mentioned this to a clerk, she remarked sagely, “In eight years’ time, I would expect the journey to take 10 minutes.” At the rate technology is developing today, this would not be an unrealistic expectation.

The LRT will have to stop at 19 stations from Komtar to the airport, so that explains the 38-minute journey. There are too many stations because it is just a single line.

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The project proponents originally forecasted that, in the very first year of the LRT, the annual ridership would be 42 million (or 115,000 per day) in an island with a population of less than 800,000!

Wasn’t this unrealistic for only a single line? Amazingly, the forecast ridership was comparable to the Klang Valley and the London tube, which have multiple lines covering vast areas!

This bloated estimate would have led many Penangites into thinking that the LRT would be self-sufficient.

But Roger Teoh, a postgraduate student at the Centre for Transport Studies in Imperial College London, figured Penang could incur up to RM1bn in losses after 10 years of operation. After all, this LRT line, estimated to cost more than RM10bn, will incur annual maintenance costs of about RM170m.

(Incidentally, the state government’s website now shows a reduced ridership of 81,000 per day – and this only upon completion of the line in 2038.)

Civil society groups in Penang are now advocating the autonomous rapid rail transit (ART), a trackless tram system currently undergoing final trials in China. A number of Australian cities have already expressed interest in this new – and much cheaper – technology.

For the Komtar to airport route, ART will probably cost only about RM600m and could be completed within two years. Sarawak is now adopting ART and will be the state leading in this direction.

The Penang state government, however, is insisting on the LRT.

But already, Penangites are being subjected to council assessment hikes of up to 100% for the coming year.

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If the Penang state government is allowed to embark on this over-ambitious RM10bn mega-project, we Penangites could be burdened with even more taxes in years to come if the elevated light rail ridership projections are not met.

If the current assessment rate hikes do not awaken Penangites to the serious risks of embarking on the RM50bn “PTMP”, then one wonders what will.

May God have mercy on us.

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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