Taking the middle ground on the Penang Transport Master Plan

The PTMP debate has been going back and forth — from both proponents and opponents in what is a contestation of policy ideas and political philosophy

by JASON LOH SEONG WEI/ pic by BERNAMA

Chow showing the Package 2 plan from Air Itam to the LCE in October last year. According to him, a tram system is not suitable for flood-prone Penang

TAKING the middle ground in the current controversy or debate over the multi-modal Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) could just be the solution.

The debate over the PTMP has been going back and forth — from both proponents and opponents in what is a contestation of policy ideas and political philosophy.

To rehash: The Penang state government, due to budgetary and fiscal constraints, has no choice but to opt for land reclamation and land swaps to fund the overhaul and massive upgrading of the transportation system.

It has to be remembered that when the venerable Lee Kuan Yew visited the island in 2009, he commented to the then Chief Minister of Penang (and now Finance Minister) Lim Guan Eng that he was not impressed with the transport infrastructure of the state.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), however, are up in arms over what they perceive to be a gross deviation from the original Halcrow Plan (eponymously named after the UK-based consultancy firm). How accurate this is remains controversial.

Nonetheless, it is my humble view that the NGOs should be able to reach a sensible and reasonable compromise with the Penang state government that is aimed at increasing public ridership ratio. Or at least achieving the 40:60 ratio of public-private ridership envisaged by the PTMP.

The components of the PTMP can be modified or adapted to meet the concerns of the NGOs. Accordingly, the form of the proposed compromise could be as follows — in simple terms. The construction of a 6.5km undersea tunnel was already in the original Halcrow Plan. But construction was pushed forward to 2030 as the earliest time-frame.

The PTMP situates the tunnel route connecting Gurney Drive with Bagan Ajam, and is earmarked for construction in 2023. However, the first phase of the works was scheduled to begin in October 2019.

As a compromise, the undersea tunnel could be built to accommodate different tiers of users via a multi-layer segmentation corresponding to private and public vehicles, as well as pedestrians alongside cyclists and personal mobility devices (PMDs), eg electric scooters.

At the same time, for much shorter routes connecting the tunnel to feeder bus stops and taxi/e-hailing stands on both the island and mainland sides, travelators could be built for the convenience of pedestrians.

For pedestrians and PMDs, separate lanes could be designed with the former in the form of underground trams or autonomous rail system. This arrangement could complement and supplement the proposed 4.8km long cable car or “sky cab” system currently underway.

As an aside, to protect against possible tsunami, the outer concrete or layer of the undersea tunnel should be reinforced and “padded” by very thick walls and steel fibre-reinforced shotcrete to improve crack resistance.

To be seismic-resistant, the reinforced curved concrete segments should alternate with water-proof, rubber-based “flexible joints” which are located in between the lining.

On the three-paired road scheduled for completion in 2025, perhaps two should be dedicated to the bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

Maybe Package Two, namely from Air Itam to the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway (LCE), would be a good candidate as being strategically in proximity with Georgetown, not to mention along areas where many of the B40 (bottom 40% income group) resides as represented by the Dhoby Ghaut-MacCallum Street low-cost flats built by the Penang Development Corp on reclaimed land, no less.

On the other hand, Package One, ie the Tanjung Tokong-Tanjung Bungah paired road, could perhaps be scrapped altogether. In its place should be a mini coastal bridge (crooked bridge!) serving as the bypass — integrated with an elevated inland structure comprising perhaps only 20% in total.

The force of the NGOs’ objections, however, are ultimately aimed at the Pan-Island Link (PIL 1) — which constitutes the “fulcrum” and hub by which the PTMP revolves around, and both topographically and geographically also constituting the “central spine” of the island’s transportation strategy for the next decade and beyond.

Now that 70% of the PIL 1 alignment will comprise a series of deep underground tunnels created by the “drill-and-blast” method involving “metre-by-metre” controlled chemical blasting, environmental concerns of hill slope and tree cutting should be allayed.

Most likely the “drill-and-blast” method would utilise the variable density tunnel boring machine technology that has been used successfully for the Storm Water Management and Road Transport System, Pahang-Selangor Raw Water Transfer Tunnel, and the Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit Sungai Buloh-Kajang Line.

Again, in the spirit of accommodation, perhaps one of the lanes (both sides) could be used solely for the BRT system.

At the same time, however, PIL 1 should be based on the concept of the Central Forest Spine of Malaysia (most prominently covering the forest complexes of Banjaran Titiwangsa-Banjaran Bintang-Banjaran Nakawan, Taman Negara-Banjaran Timur) in terms of wildlife corridors for monkeys, lemurs, macaques, squirrels, cat-like palm civets, etc.

A series of eco-links or bridges could be created (emulating the 62m long nature overpass by Mandai Lake Road of the Singapore’s Bukit Timah Expressway) that allow for safe and secure passageway for animals living in the habitat of the Penang Hill range or forest catchment area.

And arguments against the Georgetown-Bayan Lepas-Island A light rail transit line are mainly on the basis of costs.

But as pointed out by Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, a tram system would not be suitable for flood-prone Penang. Trams are run by electronic systems installed at the base of the tracks that will be exposed to short circuit during floods.

Lack of space prevents a discussion on the Penang South Reclamation project. Suffice to say, a compromise solution should be explored.

As has been highlighted by others, rehabilitation of the underwater ecosystem — impacted by land reclamation — in utilising artificial reef balls has been successful and is widely promoted.

In conclusion, I believe a compromise is not only possible but necessary, but within the framework of the PTMP.

Why? Ironically, for the sake of a more realistic method of financing by the state or in short, costs.


Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research. The views expressed are his and not necessarily reflect the newspaper owner and editorial board.