Is the LRT for Penang island a blessing or a curse?

The survey for the Penang light rail transit (LRT) is now available for our input at Komtar and nine other public places.

Some Penangites think that it is high time Penang enjoys such “modern” public transport, citing the MRT in Singapore and Hong Kong, or the monorail and modern trains in Japan.

It is therefore very appropriate to ask precisely how modern our LRT is going to be. If launched in June 2020, it is scheduled for completion seven years later, or in 2027.

One can see that the line starts from Komtar and goes south to outside the airport, then goes on through all three islands proposed to be reclaimed off our southern coast, where there will be eight LRT stations.

This last factor makes us wonder whether the LRT is meant for Penangites or for the future population of these three islands, now estimated to number 466,000 people.

Also, we are told that the journey will take 38 minutes from Komtar to the airport.

When I mentioned this to a clerk, she remarked very sagely, “In eight years’ time, I would expect the journey to take 10 minutes.”

The rate at which technology is developing today, this would not be such an unrealistic expectation.

Nonetheless, from Komtar to the airport, there will be 19 stations and one may be forgiving concerning the 38-minute journey. There has to be many stations simply because it is a single line.

The project’s proponents are saying that in the very first year, their projected ridership will be 42 million. Is this not a tad unrealistic, since it is only one line, and this forecast ridership is comparable to the Klang Valley and the London tube, which comprise multiple lines covering very vast areas.

Already, Roger Teoh, a transport expert, has predicted that this over-bloated estimate will lead Penangites into thinking that this LRT will be self-sufficient whereas he is of the opinion that Penang will likely sustain up to RM1 billion in losses after 10 years’ of operation.

In addition to that, this LRT, which is estimated to cost RM8.5-10 billion, will require a maintenance cost of at least RM170 million a year.

Civil society is advocating the Autonomous Rapid Rail Transit (ART), which is a trackless tram, currently undergoing final trials in China. A number of Australian cities have already expressed great interest in this truly modern technology.

For the Komtar-airport route, ART will only cost RM600 million and can be completed well within two years.

Sarawak is now adopting ART and will be the state leading in this direction.

The Penang state government however, appears to be adamant in insisting on the LRT.

Naturally enough, Penangites are now being subjected to assessment hikes from 30-200% for the coming year.

If the state is allowed to embark on this overly-ambitious enterprise, which is likely to balloon up to more than RM10 billion, we Penangites will not be seeing the end of the assessment hikes anytime soon.

If this assessment hike does not awaken Penangites to the obvious over-reach of the LRT and other Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) projects, which cumulatively will likely exceed RM50 billion, then one wonders what will. May God have mercy on us.

Eric Cheah is an FMT reader.

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