Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow tells the approach taken by the state government to address the state’s traffic challenges
Question: Penang is planning a massive transportation network that includes four highways, an eight-lane highway in Persiaran Gurney, light-rail transit (LRT) and undersea tunnel. Can you share details and progress of each of these projects, their estimated cost, start and completion date?
Answer: The state-initiated Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) components comprise the public transport component and highway component.
So we categorised them according to the company awarded for the delivery of these projects.
First is the package of the three major roads and one undersea tunnel awarded to Consortium Zenith Construction Sdn Bhd.
Although the letter of award and preliminary agreement was signed in 2013, it took them years to conduct the feasibility studies. They got into some controversy and were subjected to a Malay-sian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) investigation, which sort of put into doubt whether the planned projects could go ahead or not.
Now, with the master agreement in place, our plan is to sign a sub-agreement for each package of work. That means for each major road, there will be one sub-agreement. So the first sub-agreement involved Package 2 — the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu expressway to Bandar Baru, Air Itam.
In order for work to beat the deadline, we may even fine-tune the sub-agreement into two sub-packages.
As the interchange needs a lot of technical refinement, it will be signed later. So we only sign the part which is ready. We are looking at signing the package this month to allow them to start work before the deadline of the Environmental Impact Assessment’s (EIA) effective date.
Meanwhile, in case we cannot meet the deadline, the state government has written to the Department of Environment (DoE) for a six-month extension of the EIA effective date. This provides more room for us to finalise the technical aspect. If they give us an extension, there will be more breathing space to work out the interchange at the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway.
I think this will take three years to complete.
As for the second project, they hope to start a new project every six months. That will be Tanjung Tokong to Batu Ferringhi. Initially, it is Teluk Bahang.
That part still has to go through the same process like the first project. We have to endorse the design, give our views whether it is for a full length or shorter length up to Batu Ferringhi. We will decide when the time comes. It will also take about three years to complete.
The third project is from Pangkor Road to Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway. Again, the priority is given to the first project. These two projects will follow suit and decisions will be made with regard to the scale, length and types of design although feasibility studies have been done. We will look at them and decide on the options.
Q: So this means that the undersea tunnel will come at the last portion, right? But is there a need for it now, considering the second bridge is still under-utilised?
A: Of course, we can revise the sequence. The need is on the northern side of the island and the mainland because this was the original location chosen for the second bridge.
Q: Is the RM6.34 billion part of the RM46 billion price tag for the PTMP?
A: Yes. Actually all these figures, this RM6.34 billion, of course, is in their agreement, and SRS Consortium has no figure yet. It is just an estimate. You plus one plus two becomes RM46 billion, plus reclamation... is just a ballpark figure. Everything is still subject to the contract sum when you sign the agreement.
So at first, we talked about RM27 billion, then RM46 billion because it includes the land reclamation and infrastructure costs, which are not supposed to be taken into the PTMP.
Since I don’t want to dispute all these figures until we ink the agreement, this is the figure we are looking at. Since it has been used, we leave it at that but does not mean it is RM46 billion.
As for the undersea tunnel, it will be decided once its feasibility study is done.
The EIA, there is no application yet because we have not said okay. Once the feasibility study is completed, we will give the approval to submit for the EIA.
Q: Are we then agreeing to the undersea tunnel or a third bridge as reported previously?
A: It will be in the feasibility study, both the options and the recommendations. We have to look at it seriously and give instructions to the company whether to proceed or not.
And now to SRS Consortium, which at the moment, has two projects — the Bayan Lepas LRT scheme and the Pan Island Link I (PIL I) — which come with reclamation. Even Zenith’s comes with reclamation, just that it is not done by them. The reclamation has already started under the Seri Tanjung Pinang (STP) project, so it is taking the land to be surrendered to the state and making available to Zenith as payment.
In this case, it is part of the financial model presented by SRS Consortium. Reclamation will be over a long period of time. Each project on its own will take about five to six years.
If we decide to do it one after one, even the two projects would take 12 to 15 years. If concurrently, six years. But if you talk to a Chinese company, it would say that it could do it in three years, two years, no problem. We have not come to that.
And now, there is the LRT, again only with conditional approval. The public inspection is ongoing.
Once it is approved, it will move on to design. We will sign the agreement and find out the cost. After they have done all the technical stuff, there will be tenders. All this will take about six months.
Q: Then again, the state is also seeking a RM10 billion grant from the federal government?
A: We are, of course, doing it concurrently. Getting the RM10 billion means we can start the two projects together because we have sufficient funds to pay.
At the same time, the reclamation will also start so that the land sales can be phased out a little bit because the work component can be paid by the grant allocation.
Q: With the grant, will the reclamation be scaled down?
A: We have said that if we do not have to pay back the grant, then we will (scale down the reclamation). But if we have to pay, we will have to look at the figures first.
Q: What about the eight-lane highway?
A: We allocated the land to cater to an eight-lane highway. Just that when it will be built, it depends. The state will have to build it.
It is just about 1.5km to 2km long. If needed, we have to build it because it will disperse the traffic. If the undersea tunnel is built, we have to build the eight-lane highway to link the undersea tunnel to PIL I and to Tanjung Tokong.
That will be the dispersal, but not a priority now since the undersea tunnel is not built yet. It can be together. It is still too early now. If the tunnel is built, then the eight-lane highway is a priority.
The highway is not part of the PTMP allocation. We will have some surplus from land premium we will receive.
Q: How long will it take for all the above projects to be completed?
A: Whether they are done concurrently or consecutively. Concurrently, if all goes well, Zenith will take six to 10 years. If this (SRS Consortium) part is also concurrent, of course, the island will take a longer time — it will take about 10 to 15 years.
Q: What about the talked about monorail links? Where will it come in?
A: The monorail is in the second phase — Komtar to Air Itam and Komtar to Tanjung Tokong — under SRS Consortium. That will come after 15 years or in between.
Since LRT is a fixed structure, it is not as mobile as a car. Once you do it, it will only serve one line. The other lines will not be served. Not that the train can move around like a car.
There is a need for a second or third line. All cities will start with one line, two lines the most, and eventually, they will come out with six lines, 10 lines. It will grow over time.
As we said, the Komtar-Bayan Lepas LRT is just the backbone, the spine of the public transport system on the island and also the possibility of linking the mainland. So that is the central spine. It will grow over time. That is all in the future just like how Rome was not built in one day.
In Kuala Lumpur, the first line was built in the late 1990s. Now, 20 years later, they are still building. So it is organic growth overtime to match the demand. You cannot expect Penang to start with three, four lines... not possible.
Q: Talking about such massive projects, can Penang sustain them? Is it necessary for Penang to have all of them?
A: If you take the public inspection of the Bayan Lepas LRT as a guide, we managed to receive more than 300 visitors on the first day itself, of which, only 20-odd objected. So less than 10 per cent objected and the strong majority wanted the project.
If you travel to the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) every day, people are complaining about the massive jam. They finally realised that staying in the place you want to go, requires a shorter travelling time. But our town is so spread out, across the bridge (to the mainland), people from there coming over. The traffic is very mixed.
I think, if you do not build, the problem would become more challenging. Now that we still have some corridors to build, we have to do it. The longer you wait, 10 years down the road, you are still facing the same problem, and 10 years later, it will be worse and to come up with a solution in the future would be more difficult.
And after these few projects, where else can you build? No more I think. That is all Penang can. Where is the land to build new highways? No more unless you do tunnelling across to reach Balik Pulau. The state’s justification is come what may, we need to prepare for the future.
Q: Will the projects really resolve the state’s traffic woes?
A: Of course, one new project will not effectively reach capacity overnight, it takes years, and congestions happen during peak periods. But it is the peak periods we want to resolve.
So if you imagine Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway not built, how do you travel? I remembered as a young man, I came to Penang to study in Universiti Sains Malaysia, I got down from the ferry with two bags and boarded the bus. The Yellow Bus travelled from Weld Quay to the Nordin Street Flat, turned into Macallum Street before going into Jalan C.Y. Choy. It went across the Sungai Pinang bridge to Jalan Jelutong. After Gelugor, the journey was better. Can you imagine Penang served by the same road like 30 years ago?
Thirty years later, we have many more new roads like the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway, Bayan Lepas Expressway, Jalan Bukit Gambir, and of course, the widening of the northern coastal road... all these you can see for yourself the impact of these roads on the traffic situation.
Thirty years ago, our population was less than one million people. Thirty years later, we have about 1.8 million people. The population is growing even though we say we are a small state.
Q: Halcrow (UK engineering consultancy company), in its report, did indicate that some of the roads may resolve problems for six years or so upon completion. With what we are planning, will it also resolve problems for that same duration?
A: The challenge is if you do not build at all. As I said, the highway is not choked up every second of the day, only during peak periods. Transport solution is not only a one-off thing, but a multi-pronged approach.
There will come a time, you will have congestion charges, increase in tolls and parking fees, restrict parking in certain areas... things like that have to be considered. It is a package solution.
Constructing a road alone would not solve the problem. Similarly, public transport alone would not also solve the issue. Sometimes, it is a combination of many solutions.
Q: Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been bashing the PTMP, calling it a waste of money, expensive, and more importantly, building more roads will not resolve problems. They are asking why the state is not opting for cheaper alternatives.
A: It is the same. To answer the first part, it is a multi-pronged approach. Rail is a fixed line and not door-to-door convenience. People would still use their cars. Commercial vehicles cannot use rail. They still need roads to transport their goods.
The road system is not only catering to passenger cars and private cars, but also commercial vehicles. I think we have already gone through the argument why build more roads when you have an efficient rail system.
In Singapore, even with an efficient rail system, it is still building roads.
Three years ago, we had a lengthy debate. They said tram and we showed how tram could be constructed. Tram can be constructed using the existing roads, which means you take away portions of the road. Imagine you run a tram system in Burmah Road, you have to take away two of its lanes — one up and one down.
Can Burmah Road survive with two lanes taken away? How many lanes are there? Three and a half. Even Datuk Keramat and Air Itam. Nowhere in the city can we accommodate a tram system.
A tram system on top (elevated) can be called LRT or monorail. I am not concerned what you call the system, but whether grade or elevated? You can call it monorail or tram, it does not matter. It is whether at grade on the road and whether it is dedicated or not.
Now, they do not talk about tram, but about the autonomous rail rapid transit (ART) or trackless tram, which is more flexible. I suppose it is much cheaper and operates on existing roads.
Again, it is the same challenge. Possible if you take it as another bus service, a more sophisticated version of Rapid Penang bus service, with maybe two coaches, but can our roads take that kind of bend?
Q: How is the state going to convince the people that all these projects are needed?
A: If you asked the people who objected, they will say, “I do not object to the project, just that particular portion, not the project”.
It is fine-tuning and making adjustments if needed. And then, of course, technology has improved by leaps and bound. All this can be adjusted to resolve any problem that arises.
Q: We are so focused on the island. What about the mainland?
A: Mainland, it is my belief that it has a better road system. It has the North-South Expressway (NSE). Of course, there are bottlenecks here and there. It also has the Federal road, namely the old road.
Basically, the north-south spine, it is served by two major roads — one Federal road now being expanded south to north and by a few more years, I think the whole length of Seberang Prai will be widened. And then, there is NSE, connecting the first bridge and the second bridge to the island.
To Kulim and Bukit Mertajam, there will be localised traffic issues but basically the backbone, the spine, is already there.
Of course, Batu Kawan is still undertaking a lot of localised projects, such as building bridges and widening of roads.