5 reasons why PTMP is a white elephant master plan

Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow pointing at the PIL1 highway alignment on a map of Penang.

Over the past three years, various concerns regarding the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) have been raised. However, the Penang government has not, and is unlikely to, provide evidence-based answers to clear the air. Instead, the Penang chief minister has continued brush off various concerns raised by concerned citizens and civil societies.

This article compiles existing data and analysis that is freely available in the public domain to raise five highly critical statements on the PTMP backed by quantitative evidence.

1. The population density in the reclaimed islands is projected to be higher than many metropolitan cities around the world.

The South Reclamation Scheme has been pitched as a necessary project to fund the Pan Island Link 1 (PIL1) highway and the Penang LRT. However, questionable population projections were used to justify that there will be sufficient demand for the sale of land in these reclaimed islands.

According to data from Chow Kon Yeow’s media statement, the three reclaimed islands (with a land area of 16.98 sq km) are projected to have a population of 367,379 in the year 2030. This translates to a population density of 21,636 people per sq km in the reclaimed islands, which will be higher than many metropolitan cities around the world.

Is such a population (and density) justifiable? What is so interesting in or around the reclaimed islands to the point that population density is projected to be higher than the city centres of London and Paris? Why would 367,379 Penangites choose to squeeze themselves in these islands by 2030 when there are less dense areas available elsewhere in the state?

2. The PIL1 will be one of the most expensive transport infrastructures in Malaysia.

The projected cost for the PIL1 highway (RM9.6 billion) will be one of the most expensive transport infrastructures in Malaysia, and only the KL Sungai Buloh-Putrajaya (SSP) MRT2 (which serves a larger population base and involves a more complex construction environment in an urban conurbation) is more expensive in terms of the cost per km.

Perhaps shockingly, the cost per km for the PIL1 highway is 56% higher than the KL-Singapore high-speed rail (which has now been deferred due to high construction costs), and around 7.5 times higher relative to the revised price tag of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL). Even the Kinrara-Damansara Expressway (Kidex), which was said to be the most expensive highway in Malaysia but was cancelled and never built, costs 67% lower on a per km basis.

While the federal government has reiterated the commitment to reduce the high debt levels of the country by scrapping or re-negotiating projects that were inherited by the previous administration, Penang continues to spend lavishly without batting an eye.

Somehow the rules set by the federal government do not apply to Penang and calls for a holistic review on the feasibility and concerns of the PTMP continue to fall on deaf ears.

3. The economic benefits of the Penang LRT are artificially inflated.

A highly exaggerated annual ridership of 42 million trips (within one year after the Penang LRT is operational) is assumed, likely to artificially inflate the economic benefits and justify the high construction costs (RM9 billion).

To put this into perspective, this projected annual ridership is significantly higher than most MRT lines in London, Singapore and KL on a per capita basis.

For an absolute comparison, despite KL having a larger population, the Sungai Buloh-Kajang (SBK) MRT only managed to achieve an annual ridership of 22.25 million (or 11.1 annual passenger journeys per capita) in its first year, 48% lower than the forecasted annual ridership for the Penang LRT.

Of course, the proposed LRT is great but can Penang afford it? The financial viability of the LRT project and the state’s financial health could be threatened if a more realistic ridership projection is used. Not only would the projected economic benefits be significantly lower, but the loss in ticket revenues could also cost at least RM120m per year (equivalent to 24% of the estimated revenue for the Penang state budget in 2019).

What about the opportunity costs of foregoing alternative public transport systems that are shown to be cheaper to build, operate and maintain, and could significantly expand the public transport catchment area?

4. Traffic congestion in Penang is here to stay and will only get worse unless there is a paradigm shift.

While more highways are expected to relieve traffic congestion between inter-urban trips (green lines on the map), local traffic problems within an urban area (red circles) will continue to worsen.

Transport studies have shown that a two-lane highway to a city centre typically adds around 10,000 additional vehicles a day to the surface streets, and around 80% of vehicular traffic in a city centre can be associated with drivers looking for a parking space.

However, due to land constraints, it is no longer feasible to expand local roads and parking space within urban centres in Penang to cater to the increased traffic from the PIL1.

Independent studies from local universities and NGOs have also estimated that free-flowing traffic in the PIL1 can only be maintained for around seven years after it is operational. Beyond that, Penang is expected to return to square one of experiencing worsening traffic congestion, despite spending RM 9.6 billion on a single highway which is clearly an expensive, inefficient and short-term solution.

While proponents of the PTMP will argue that I have neglected the potential benefits of the LRT in reducing traffic congestion, the next subsection will show that this benefit will be unlikely to materialise.

5. The Penang government’s goal of achieving a 40% public transport modal share target by 2030 will be missed by a wide margin.

There is irrefutable scientific evidence warning that more highways are strongly correlated to the increase in car modal share and dependence in a city while relying on new public transport infrastructure in isolation (such as the LRT) in encouraging commuters to shift from cars to public transport only has a limited effect.

Phase one of the PTMP aims to construct only one LRT line (30km) but significantly, more roads and highways (totalling 70km, including the PIL1, 3 Zenith paired roads, Gurney Expressway and undersea tunnel). This is in violation (or ignoring) the cause-effect relationships in reducing the car modal share in a city.

Investments in public transport must be implemented in synergy with other policies (i.e. improving city walkability, station accessibility, public transport coverage and integration and safety).

Note that London, despite introducing various car restraint policies such as congestion charging and removing road capacity, only managed to reduce its car modal share from 49% (1995) to 37% (2016), while a car-dependent city such as Phoenix (USA) took 17 years to reduce its car modal share marginally from 94% (1995) to 84% (2012).

Given these case studies and the policy approaches outlined in PTMP, there appears to be a lack of political will from the Penang government to achieve its 40% public transport modal share target by 2030. Modelling results suggest that, despite the high capital expenditure incurred by the LRT, the public transport modal share is likely to be in the range of 10% in 2030, only a marginal increase from current levels of 3.2%.

Considering the fact that road transport is responsible for 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions in a city, these policies are also in contradiction with the goal of reducing Malaysia’s carbon intensity by 35% by 2030, set by the energy, science, technology, environment and climate change ministry.

A white elephant master plan

On the whole, the quantitative evidence summarised above shows that the extremely high costs of the PTMP cannot be justified. We are entering a dangerous precedent, especially when politicians can get away with ignoring hard scientific evidence in favour of rhetoric and the whims of certain interest groups.

Given the large sums involved, it is likely that the future government in power will no longer have the financial flexibility to turn things around should the PTMP run into financial trouble, as explained here

There will be no turning back once the agreement is signed and work commenced.

Roger Teoh is a PhD postgraduate studying at the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College London.

The opinion of the author is expressed from a neutral standpoint, and he is not a member or affiliate of any political party or NGOs in Malaysia.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.