Does Penang really need an undersea tunnel?

The proposed undersea tunnel between Bagan Ajam, Seberang Perai and Gurney Drive is part of the Penang government’s RM6.3 billion integrated infrastructure project.

Is the tunnel necessary? Let’s look at the facts.

  • Length: 7.2km undersea between Bagan Ajam, Seberang Perai and Gurney Drive, George Town.
  • Contract: A privatised project with a 30-year concession given out by the state government.
  • Toll: Rates are similar to Penang’s 2nd bridge.
  • Cost: RM6.3 billion under a land swap deal.
  • Feasibility study funded by the state government costing RM305 million (already paid and is now the subject of a MACC investigation).

The main infrastructure project includes:

  • A 4.2km bypass from Gurney Drive to Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu.
  • A 4.6km bypass between Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu and Bandar Baru Air Itam
  • A 12km paired-road from Jalan Tanjung Bungah to Teluk Bahang.

Many NGOs and experts on traffic and transportation have said the tunnel would only bring in more vehicles to the narrow streets of Tanjung Tokong, Tanjung Bungah, Batu Ferringhi, Pulau Tikus and Gurney Drive. Thus, more congestion can be expected on the island.

So why bring more traffic to the already congested roads on Penang island?

A more logical move would be to resolve the problem of traffic congestion on the island as well as on the first bridge, where the problem seems to be. Or is it really?

It appears that more and more people have decided to live in Seberang Prai on the mainland as the houses there are cheaper.

There are more options for those who wish to live in landed properties rather than in flats or apartments on the island.

Some people have lamented that the low-cost flats on the island are of low quality, old and congested with no proper facilities.

A friend from Bukit Mertajam, who works in Bayan Lepas, told me that the better condominiums are too expensive. Another thinks that another link in Penang will not help to ease the island’s traffic situation, but will only increase the number of vehicles on the road brought in through the tunnel.

Yet another friend says Penang’s main problem is housing and the absence of a transit system.

Many feel the present arrangement, where the jobs are on the island and cheap homes in Seberang Perai, will not work.

The workers have no choice but to use private vehicles, leading to congestion on the first bridge.

Despite a third lane added to the Penang Bridge, increasing its daily capacity to 155,000 pcus (or passenger car units equivalent) per direction, the average daily usage of about 73% is still considered high and causes congestion.

Meanwhile, Penang’s second bridge, Jambatan Sultan Abdul Halim, opened in 2014, is under-utilised, with an average of only 14,300 vehicles daily. This bridge, which serves traffic from further south of Seberang Perai and northern Perak has a capacity of about 30,000 daily.

According to a source, its daily average usage is only about 47% for both directions with a low annual increase of less than 2%.

What it means, in a nut shell, is that traffic volume justifications for the tunnel are not there even for the future. There is sufficient capacity to be obtained from the first and second bridge and also the ferry, the capacity of which could be added or increased fairly easily at a nominal cost.

Has the state government examined all the available transport strategies before a decision was made on the tunnel option?

Given the high cost of undersea tunneling, why was a shorter route not chosen?

Solving Penang’s traffic problems may not require adding another piece of transport infrastructure, such as an undersea tunnel, to the future transport equation. Definitely not when the cost is an exorbitant RM6.3 billion.

But understanding and planning as to where and at what location people should live and work obviously would help the cause.

By narrowing this trip origin-destination (OD pairs) of home and workplace with a proper strategy, the state could play a more meaningful role in transport planning.

By the same token, it will not only shorten their daily travelling distance (and time) but it will also lead to solving traffic congestion.

Perhaps, it could also be complemented by a low-cost public transport strategy.

For instance, a road-based tram system for island-wide services could further assist Penang dwellers to leave their cars at home and jump onto a tram instead.

Tram befits a tourist-friendly city such as George Town. And I am pretty sure it would not cost an arm and a leg as does the tunnel.

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

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