Better, cheaper, faster alternative to RM46 bil PTMP

The SRS Penang Transport Master Plan, at RM46 billion and counting, is an overblown
project that does not solve Penang’s transport woes, is financially ruinous, and
environmentally destructive.

An alternative fully integrated public transport system based on modification of the Halcrow Plan can be implemented at less than RM10 billion. The sources of funding can come from cancellation of the Zenith package (RM6 billion), sale of Sungai Nibong state-owned land (RM1 billion) and federal funding (RM2 billion). There is hence no justification for the Penang South Reclamation project.

What is the alternative?

The alternative is to revisit the Halcrow PTMP with introduction of minor modifications.
Halcrow’s three-volume studies over 18 months offer a detailed description of the public
transport systems with capital expenditure as well as operating and maintenance costs.

Halcrow had proposed an integrated public transport system that includes trams, BRT,
buses, feeder buses, commuter rail and ferries:

  • Three major tram routes totalling 60km radiating from George Town – one to
    Tanjong Bungah in the north, one to Bayan Lepas in the south and one to Air
    Itam/PayaTerubong in the northwest – while two shorter tram lines loop within
    George Town.
  • Three BRT routes – two on the mainland (one from Butterworth to Macang Bubok, the
    other serving the Southern Corridor from Butterworth to Simpang Empat) and the third
    serving Bayan Lepas-FTZ zone.
  • One commuter rail from Pinang Tunggal to Nibong Tebal.
  • Ferries from Butterworth to George Town; Butterworth to Gurney/Queensbay; and Queensbay to Weld Quay.

Table 3.1 shows the costs of the public transport by type of system and by expenditure. The total estimated cost is RM9.7 billion with tram accounting for RM5.4 billion, BRT RM2.6 billion and rail and ferry RM1.6 billion. In terms of type of expenditure, 77% is spent on infrastructure costs, 15% on vehicle fleet costs and 8% on depot, maintenance and storage.

Table 3.1

Source: Halcrow, 2012, Finalised Version: Table 4.4 p.42

Table 3.2 shows the range of vehicles and vehicle fleet size for the proposed public
transport systems. The total price of purchasing 534 units of different public transport
systems is RM1.45 billion. The public transport system would have 58 trams, 43 BRT
buses, 22 ferries, 12 commuter trains and 114 feeder buses.

There is no capital cost for the 285 buses as Rapid Penang already owns and operates about 300 buses. The annual operating and maintenance costs for the public transport system is RM386 million.

The fleet of buses, ferries and commuter trains can now be expanded unlike previously,
when they were under the BN federal government.

Table 3.2

Source: Halcrow, Report 2: Table 11.5; Table 10.8

With the above information, we can now compare what the Falcrow Plan offers to what the SRS Plan offers. In short, the cost of building one LRT route (most recent cost RM10 billion) OR one PIL 1 highway, parallel in direction to the LRT line (most recent cost RM9.6 billion) is the price of providing an integrated public transport system for almost the entire Penang state (RM9.6 billion). Phase 1 alone of the SRS + Zenith package would cost RM23 billion and the only public transport system in that package is the single LRT line. All of this money is spent on Penang island with nothing for the mainland.

We are, however, in 2019 now, not 2012. A lot has happened between 2012 and 2019. Most significantly, Pakatan Harapan now controls the federal government and Penang state.

Secondly, technology has changed significantly. We have today a better, cheaper and faster alternative with the ART system.

The three major tram lines in the Halcrow Plan (60km in length) cost RM5.4 billion. Today, it is possible to build these three lines for RM1.5 billion using the ART technology (taking the higher estimate of RM24 million per km).

Taking into account these two major developments, we propose a modified Halcrow Plan as
an alternative (see Table 3.3). Under this alternative, PIL 1 and the Zenith package (including the cross-channel tunnel) are cancelled. In place of the North Coast Paired Road, we propose coastal water taxis. LRT and monorails are replaced with ART. There is room and budget to introduce more feeder buses, bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure, and improve the first and last mile connectivity. The cost would still be under RM10 billion.

Table 3.3

Source: Modified from SRS and Halcrow Plans and Public Accounts Committee report

Summary of alternatives

1. Good network of ART and BRTs supported by feeder systems to address first and last-
mile connectivity. It is easy to run BRT or ART on major arterial roads. Providing a good
feeder system is the challenging part. We need to be creative on the feeder system. Bring
back mini-buses, ojaks, park-and-ride bicycles, e-hailing services etc. Get the private sector to do part of this.

2. Bus-HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes to be introduced along the first Penang
Bridge. Similar lanes can be tried out in major arterial roads on the island and mainland
during peak hours.

3.Better utilisation of water transport. Surrounded by seas, more investment must go to
improve water transport as a mode of public transportation. Upgrading the cross-channel ferry system should be a top priority to alleviate cross-channel traffic problems instead of the tunnel.

Water taxis should be developed to connect the north and south parts of the island to George Town – from Queensbay Mall in the south to town, and from Batu Ferringhi in the north to town. If this is well developed, there is no need for the North Coast Paired Road (under the Zenith package).

4.Invest more on bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Only in the last three years has
Singapore taken this concept seriously and made good strides in this direction. We can
learn from them. The first thing to do is to commission a serious master plan for bicycling.
To overcome two major factors working against bicycling (heat and safety), plant more
shady trees along roads and provide safe bicycle lanes. Contra-flow bicycle lanes are used
successfully in many cities.

5. Strict enforcement of traffic rules. A great part of Penang’s traffic jam is also caused by
illegal parking and poor enforcement by local authorities. This is particularly acute near
schools during school closing hours. This can be solved by the partial “privatisation” of
enforcement, such as commissioning private operators to tow cars but under the strict
control and supervision of council.

6. Balanced and sustainable development. The state has consistently talked about balanced development between the island and mainland. The Penang Development Corp has about 4,500 acres of land on the mainland according to an answer provided in the Penang state assembly.

This is a great opportunity to put that policy into practice. It should focus on developing
Batu Kawan and other neighbouring sites into the second high-tech industrial zone of
Penang. This new industrial zone is only 15 minutes to the island via the Second Bridge.


Our back-of-envelope estimation of the cost of these alternatives is below RM10 billion as
illustrated in Table 3.3. So where would the money come from? Table 3.4 shows the sources of funding will come from: savings from cancelling the Zenith projects; sale of Sungai Nibong land owned by the state; and federal funding.

The Penang state government needs to request for RM2.6 billion, not RM10 billion or RM20 billion, from the federal government to address its transport woes.

Table 3.4

Table 3.5

Source: Public Accounts Committee Report

Lim Mah Hui is a former professor and international banker and was on the Penang Island City Council for six years.

Ahmad Hilmy is a transport engineer and associate professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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