Road to Nowhere

Unlike other self-respecting but ambitious cities, Penang has as yet no transport masterplan to speak of, but plans for ad hoc infrastructure mega-projects abound. What this means for the city is not hard to predict. If traffic jams are the major criterion for progress, then the future looks bright.

I avoid leaving the house on weekends and going to town (which I loosely use to describe Pulau Tikus and George Town) simply because traffic congestion is a bloody nuisance. Currently, there are more private vehicles in Penang than there are people so this situation is hardly surprising, but no less infuriating.

The issue is magnified many times over during public holidays, when the island experiences a 30% increase in vehicles; cars and bikes swarm over the island, crossing via the Penang Bridge or by ferry. It will be interesting to observe traffic trends when construction of the second link is completed in 2013, although it’s hard to be optimistic. How much traffic congestion can the second link realistically relieve when many of Penang Island’s major arteries remain single carriageways, including Gurney Drive, Jalan Kelawai, part of Jalan Burma and Jalan Batu Ferringhi?

While some a empts at improving public transport have been made, notably the introduction of Rapid Penang and the CAT bus (which shuttles workers from the mainland to Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zones), Penangites are still waiting for a long-term integrated public transport1 and traffic management strategy.

Money and the delicate issue of state-federal relations are regularly cited as obvious impediments to solving the island’s traffic and public transport issues, so when the recent announcement on proposed RM8bil infrastructure projects in Penang was made it was incredible that no allocation was made for public transport. Instead, the RM8bil represents the cost of constructing two bypasses and an undersea tunnel. 

The China-Penang link
The RM8bil infrastructure proposal coincided with China Premier Wen Jiabao’s state visit to Malaysia in April 2011, when a memorandum of understanding between the Penang state government2 and Beijing Urban Construction Group (BUCG) a - government-linked company (GLC) for a proposed “traffic alleviation project” was announced.3 The centrepiece of the RM8bil project is a 6.5km tunnel that will link Gurney Drive to Butterworth. If this project kicks off, the tunnel will become the fourth link between island and mainland.

So far, nothing has been set in stone, as how a tunnel connecting the mainland to one of the island’s busiest single carriageways will alleviate traffic defies logic. Gurney Drive and the surrouding Pulau Tikus neighbourhood become a traffic quagmire during rush hour and weekends and it’s difficult to imagine how the proposed tunnel will solve the problem.

What does RM8bil buy?
Malaysia’s love affair with “mega” projects often borders on the near obsessive. Taller, longer, bigger doesn’t always translate into better, or a more cost-effective and efficient use of limited resources.

Could RM8bil be better spent on a long-term, sustainable solution to the island’s impending traffic crisis? Certainly.

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