Picking a Better, Cheaper, Faster Transport System

loading Traffic along Lebuh Carnavon in George Town.

Go Big seems to be the Penang Transport Masterplan’s way of solving traffic woes and accommodating future growth. A group of local NGOs has other ideas.

It was mid-July when the debate over Penang’s public transportation plans reached a new level. After repeated censure for allegedly being all talk and no action, Penang Forum released a 61-page document outlining its alternative proposals for public transit networks in the state.

This coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) entitled their suggestion Better, Cheaper, Faster (BCF) and in it presented modern trams and dedicated bus lanes as the preferred way forward.

The manifesto opposes the state government’s Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) that proposes the building of Light-Rail Transits (LRTs), monorails and highways, primarily. The SRS Consortium – made up of Gamuda, Loh Phoy Yen Holdings and Ideal Property Development – is behind the PTMP, the open tender for which it won on August 14 last year.

One of the major points in SRS’s plan is the creation of three man-made islands off Penang’s southern coast that would be auctioned off by the state as land parcels to fund the PTMP. The first phase, scheduled for completion in 2030, sees a 30km Bayan Lepas LRT line being constructed from Komtar to the newly reclaimed islands as well as a 20km, six-lane Pan Island Link (PIL1) linking Gurney Drive to Penang International Airport (PIA). They are estimated to cost RM7bil and RM8bil respectively, though the final cost will only be known after an open tender for the projects is completed.

Future features include three monorail lines (two on the island, one on the mainland), a tram line for George Town’s heritage zone and a handful of other new roads and missing links.

The Alternative

For some, this proposal has been hard to swallow. Chief among its critics has been Penang Island City Council (MBPP) councillor Dr Lim Mah Hui. “I feel the PTMP is half a property plan and half a transport plan. The state has yet to answer questions about their population and ridership projections, both of which are extremely inflated. They also don’t have an answer to our questions on where the detailed financial projections and costbenefit analysis are, of not only what they have proposed, but of each and every option; the BRT (bus rapid transit), the tram, the monorail and the LRT. That is something you need to give the people of Penang for them to decide which is financially feasible,” says Lim.

The BCF counter proposal, which has also come under heavy scrutiny, wants the Bayan Lepas LRT line to be converted into a dedicated, at grade tram line with exclusive Right-of-Way (ROW), meaning that it is separated from other vehicular traffic.

A city centre tram loop is proposed to replace the PTMP’s tram line running from Komtar to the Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal. BCF prefers the capital’s transit hub to be located at Komtar Walk and not at the old Sia Boey market, as recommended by the PTMP.

For the mainland, an extensive BRT network in place of the PTMP’s proposed Raja Uda-Bukit Mertajam monorail and a cross-channel BRT line linking Batu Kawan to PIA are suggested. The PIL highway, Penang Forum contends, should be scrapped indefinitely in favour of encouraging more road users to use public transport.

Top on the list of criticisms of BCF is its lack of technical details on network alignments, an overall funding model and the practicality of creating dedicated public transport lines at grade, meaning at the current road level.

Lim, however, says Penang Forum’s proposal was never meant to be a full-fledged transport plan. “The primary purpose of our ‘plan’ is to raise some very fundamental concerns about the SRS proposal, which is supposed to be a full-fledged transport plan but which is found lacking in a lot of areas. The real, proper plan is the Halcrow plan that took almost 18 months to produce and cost RM3.2mil.

The SRS plan is in excess of perhaps RM5mil to RM10mil and, even with their consultants, must have taken six months to a year to prepare,” he says, adding that those who formulated BCF did so on a voluntary basis.

Karen Lai

Dr Lim Mah Hui.

We have done our research and know that LRTs cost two to three times more to construct and two to three times more to operate and maintain on a yearly basis. On top of that, it takes so much longer to buil

The Halcrow plan that Lim refers to is a study that was co m m i s s i o n e d by the state government in May 2011 with the aim of developing a sustainable transport master plan strategy for the state. It was carried out by AJC Planning Consultants in collaboration with Halcrow Consultants and Singapore Cruise Centre and was completed at the end of 2012.

Among its main recommendations was the creation of seven tram lines on Penang island: four radial lines linking George Town to Air Itam, the north coast, the airport and the Jalan Macalister area and three orbital lines centring on Pengkalan Weld, Penang Times Square and Gurney Quay. Three BRT lines were also presented: two orbital lines around Bayan Lepas and South Seberang Prai and one radial line from Butterworth to Bukit Mertajam.

Additionally, feeder buses and catamaran feeder ferry services were proposed alongside provisional cost estimates of the entire core public transport network infrastructure (excluding land acquisition), coming up to around RM8bil.1

In championing the Halcrow plan above the PTMP, Lim says it was fundamentally flawed to build two transport systems that would compete with one another. “To have a good public transport system, the first thing that has to be done is to move transportation away from private (usage) to public (usage). That is the primary overall aim, so all your policies must be directed at that aim. It is unacceptable to build the PIL highway that will ultimately compete with the ridership of the Bayan Lepas LRT. They say that with the PIL, you can travel from Gurney Drive to PIA in 15 minutes and it will be toll free. Even I would take that [and not the LRT]!”

Karen Lai

Traffic at a crawl on Jalan Penang during rush hour.

Cost is also a major bone of contention among those weighing trams against LRTs. “We have done our research and know that LRTs cost two to three times more to construct and two to three times more to operate and maintain on a yearly basis. On top of that, it takes so much longer to build. You can build a tram line from Komtar to the airport for less than RM2bil at RM80mil per km. If the tram is too expensive, build a BRT which will cost under RM1bil and you won’t even have to worry about moving utility lines. All you’ll need is a dedicated bus lane and on off-peak hours, it can even be a shared lane,” he says.

He adds that funding can come from the sale of the Pesta Pulau Pinang site in Sungai Nibong – an idea, he says, that has been considered by the state for various reasons over the years.

On issues of social cost, land acquisitions and the ability of trams and buses to support the targeted 40% of road users (public transport ridership in Penang now sits at around three per cent of road trips), Lim points to cities like Curitiba in Brazil and Bogota in Colombia where similar modes of transport have been implemented. “We estimate that about 60% of the land needed for our plan will use road reserves. Even in the LRT plan, land acquisition will be required. In the end, the Halcrow plan is an integrated one while the SRS plan is just an assembly of non-integrated mega projects.”

Overall, he says, BCF takes an incremental approach to creating a sustainable public transport network in the state. “Like they say in Curitiba, you can either plan for people or cars; you can’t plan for both. The question is, do we have vision or the will to do so?” Lim asks.

With the Bayan Lepas LRT proposal now being reviewed by the national Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) and a possible review on the matter by the Unesco World Heritage Centre, it will be a while yet before any proposal or compromise can begin to materialise.

BCF and the Halcrow reports can be obtained at www.bettercheaperfaster.my while the PTMP can be accessed at pgmasterplan.penang.gov.my.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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