A SERIES OF ARTICLES BY TREVOR SUDAMA
ON THE DEBE MON DESIR HIGHWAY RE-ROUTE
As a contribution to the ongoing discourse on the Highway Re-route issue, we reprint this series of articles by former
RE-ROUTE REVISITED (PART 1)
I have decided to revert for a few columns to the issue of the construction of the Highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin because the full facts and the myriad negative consequences of this project are not known to all sectors of the national community of which every member will be affected and therefore should each be an interested stake holder. This is certainly not a minor localized matter as the PP Government would have the country believe.
Rational discourse has been submerged in a deluge of propaganda, emotional appeals, false claims and illusory benefits propounded by the Government. It should be borne in mind that rational arguments seldom hold final sway in governmental decisions. What is critical is the clout of vested interests, the ego and obsession of key Government ministers and the anticipated positive electoral outcomes.
In this instance, vested interests include certain Government Ministers (chief among them being Jack Warner), contractors large and small, design and engineering consultants, suppliers of aggregate and other materials (at inflated prices), owners of trucks and equipment, property owners in the vicinity of the route of the Highway, financial intermediaries and some construction workers. The question to be asked is whether the fortunes of these vested interests should take precedence over the national interest.
In view of the protest action by the Re-Route Group, the egos of Jack Warner, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Roodal Moonilal (whom the protestors have given two nicknames- Moneylal or Moonilie) and Stacy Roopnarine have been challenged. For such daring, the protestors and their stance have to be vanquished regardless of the validity of their arguments. It was Jack Warner who stated, “41 protestors… cannot stop the Point Fortin Project… I cannot allow that”.
It should be noted that Warner uses the word “I” not the word “Government” . It may be that Jack Warner perceives himself to be the Government and is so perceived by many. He combines in his personality the two attributes of ego and arrogance backed by the files he claims to have in his possession with the threat to use them as needed.
The PP Government is attempting to portray the affected residents and communities in the proposed Debe to Mon Desir Section as a small minority who are standing in the way of the majority enjoying progress and development. But the immediately affected residents constitute over 300 hundred homes and 13 communities.
The large work force of a number of businesses including Jokhan General Contractors and API will face retrenchment and it is estimated that over 5,000 persons will be directly and negatively affected. Moreover, hundreds of people have committed themselves by way of their signatures to engage in legal action against the State. As will be outlined later the alleged benefits are illusory.
The PP has surmised that since it enjoyed substantial electoral support in the communities in question at the May 2010 General Elections, it can ride rough shod over the protest and still maintain its significant support base. It is therefore convinced that there is little to worry about electorally. However, the ramifications of this project are so diffuse and are of such magnitude that they are of
national significance and affect all citizens directly or indirectly.
I have argued in a previous column that the San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway cannot rationally be conceived as an infrastructural priority at this time in light of the urgent needs in other neglected areas of existing infrastructure and the funding demands of other sectors such as security, health, education and the prerequisites for diversification.
However, I will confine my remarks to the totally unnecessary, financially wasteful and socially and environmentally destructive section from Debe to Mon Desir which the Re-Route Movement is requesting to be discontinued. In place of this section a much shorter route is recommended from Debe to Mosquito Creek adjacent to the existing M2 Ring Road. This alternative route is claimed to cost an estimated $1 billion and generate a savings of approximately $4 billion.
The San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway is a 47km four lane project estimated to cost $7.5 billion (excluding ramps). Even at this conservative estimate this works out to an average of $160 million per km- perhaps one of the most expensive cost per km in the world. But if the total cost were to double to$15 billion, then the average cost per km escalates to $320 million.
Moreover, the cost of building through the Oropouche Lagoon and constructing innumerable ramps over existing roadways will mean that the unit cost for this section will be much higher than the average cost per km for the whole highway of all 47 km and will probably be of the order of $240 million per km in this section. The length of the proposed route from Debe to Mon Desir is about 16 km. The burning question is whether this magnitude of expenditure is justified on this one project in the current situation of decreasing Government revenues. The Minister of Finance is eloquently silent on this issue.
RE-ROUTE REVISITED (PART 2): THE BULLDOZER MENTALITY
On Wednesday 27th June, the Re-Route Camp Site on the M2 Ring Road was bulldozed because the PP Government wants to display its power and its power lies in bulldozers which many of its financiers do own. The Re-Route fight may be lost but not the arguments which support it. I therefore continue to outline those arguments.
In the previous column I commented on the enormous cost per km of building the Highway from Debe to Mon Desir which is a distance of about 16km largely through lagoon and agricultural lands. The Re-Route Movement is pro
If, in fact, savings of this magnitude or even smaller is realized by taking the Re-Route option, there will be less demand on the Treasury for funding and every tax payer stands to benefit from this alternative recommendation. Every citizen therefore is a stakeholder and an interested party. The money thus saved could be utilized in addressing urgent problems in other priority areas of road infrastructure. The Government’s application to the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) was not approved.
It would be interesting to know why this request was refused. Did the IDB come to the conclusion that, on an appraisal of costs and benefits, costs greatly exceeded benefits? Or, did the Bank think that the project and the expenditure associated with it was not a priority at this time? Or, was the Bank of the view that the resulting environmental damage was too great and the social consequences too severe. One can only speculate.
The construction costs of building a Highway through lagoon lands would necessarily be high. In order to provide a firm base, the sappy lagoon soil has to be excavated to a depth of 15 to 20 feet to be filled with a base of aggregate and compacted. Furthermore, the route of the Debe to Mon Desir section traverses many existing roadways and it would be necessary to build ramps over them. Some are less than 100m from each other and one wonders whether a system of continuous ramping will be required. The alternative would be to cut off the existing roadways along the Highway route and permanently divide communities and disrupt access between them.
To get an idea of the huge amounts of ramps to be built and the associated costs or the wide spread inconveniencing of communities if the roads are cut off, the roads in question need to be listed- M2 Ring Road, Hermitage/Debe Road, Debe Trace, (crossing of the New Cut Channel), Suchit Trace, Gopie Trace, Tulsa Trace, Banwarie Trace, Jokhan Trace, San Francique Road, Montoute Trace, Murray Trace, Saltmine Trace, Seukeran Trace, Siparia Old Road, Mortelle Trace, Seelal Trace, Delhi Road and Mon Desir Road. The question is what developmental purpose is served by undertaking these huge costs and tremendous dislocation.
If the Government’s argument is that the re-routing of the Highway will result in the Government having to pay millions of dollars in compensation to those whose contracts are to be discontinued, then I ask what about the billions to be saved as a result. Furthermore, this PP Government should compare this cost to the billions it has and continues to cost as a result of the cessation of the Aluminium Smelter project at La Brea. Billions of dollars were lost in site preparation and establishment of infrastructure including the port at La Brea and the power generating plant in addition to agreements which were breached. As a continuing burden the Government has to pay millions of dollars a month for electricity that it does not require as a result of the take or pay agreement. Compared to the costs involved in the discontinuance of the Smelter Project, the cost of re-routing the Highway is minimal.
In a one page flyer issued by the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure the purported “facts” about the Highway are stated. The document claims that “the Highway project will support industrial, commercial, agricultural and human development…”. But between Debe and Mon Desir in primarily low lying lands one has to question what industrial development is contemplated. Who will invest in industry there? This PP Government cannot even construct small industrial estate sites to enable small and medium enterprises to access land at moderate prices. The envisaged industrial development in this area is therefore a pipe dream. As for commercial development, the Debe to Mon Desir route by passes the existing commercial businesses which will surely experience reduced sales.
The claim that the Highway will boost agricultural development is as wildly propagandistic as you can get. The physical infrastructural requirements to support agriculture are access roads and proper drainage and irrigation systems, not a four lane Highway. Far from supporting agriculture this Highway will serve to destroy it in the area. Scores of current farmers along the route are being asked to vacate agricultural lands and the compensation offered is grossly insufficient to acquire alternative suitable lands, even if available. These farmers will therefore be forced out of agricultural production. If hundreds of acres of fertile lands are to be destroyed by the construction of the Debe to Mon Desir section of the Highway this will have a long term impact on local food production and food availability. Every citizen will be affected.
RE-ROUTE REVISITED (PART 3) GOLCONDA TO MON DESIR: AN AFTER THOUGHT
The section from Golconda to Debe is already under construction so we will not dwell on that portion. However, since the PP Government seems irrevocably committed to constructing the segment from Debe to Mon Desir, it is for them to prove that, on balance, the presumed benefits whether in terms of industrial, commercial, agricultural, human and communications development are of greater magnitude than the known costs of huge financial outlay to be financed either by formal borrowing or by budget deficits which will impose a heavy burden on present and future generations.
Other costs include significant loss of agricultural production, the cost of capping 63 oil wells, crossing of 3 major waterways, the permanent damage to the environment, the dislocation of hundreds of families and scores of settled communities, the destruction of the built infrastructure of homes, places of worship, community buildings and road networks, the increase in flooding, the disruption of existing businesses resulting in the retrenchment of hundred s of workers and the profound trauma and stress imposed on those, especially the elderly, who would be uprooted from their familiar environs to be relocated in cramped land space and unwelcoming conditions.
Thus far the PP Government has not made a convincing case of the merits of pursuing this segment of the Highway except to speak in vague terms of “development” by spokesmen who do not understand the full import of the term. What we have had instead from the PP is a lot of bravado and gun talk and the malignment of the protestors. I have argued that, on closer examination, the PP Government’s threadbare case is flawed and, by any rational assessment, the continuation of the Debe to Mon Desir segment is not justified.
I have already dismissed the notion that the Highway will lead to any substantial industrial and commercial development. I mentioned the certain loss of agricultural output in the area. Suitable alternative farming lands have not been offered to the farmers scheduled for dislocation but, even if there was such an offer, the majority of these farmers are in their fifties, sixties and seventies and it will be well nigh impossible for them to start from scratch with infrastructure and land preparation at another location. The geosoil fertility of the lands in and around the Oropouche Lagoon is given as 14 feet. This means its fertility will endure for some considerable time.
If hundreds of acres of such fertile land are destroyed by the construction of the Debe to Mon Desir segment, this will have a long term impact on food production ( and food prices) more so because the acreage of arable land in Trinidad is limited. If local food production is to be reduced, such a consequence will have national significance for food security. Not only every farmer and his family but every citizen will be negatively affected by this circumstance and is thus a stake holder in the non pursuit of the Debe to Mon Desir section of the Highway Project.
Agriculture will be affected not only through the loss of lands and the displacement of farmers but also by flooding in the vicinity of the route of the Debe to Mon Desir segment. In addition to cultivated lands being flooded, residences, businesses and roads will be affected in the areas in question such as Debe, Suchit Trace, Gopie Trace, Tulsa Trace, San Francique Road, Murray Trace among others. It is boldly and incredulously stated in the one page flyer issued by the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure that the Debe to Mon Desir segment of the Highway “will help relieve many of the existing problems which lead to floods at present.”
It confounds the imagination that building a 6-10 feet embankment across lagoon and low lying lands to facilitate the construction of this section of the Highway would actually relieve flooding in the area. I am told that the Drainage Division of the Ministry of Works was asked to do drainage studies on the impact of Highway construction in this area. If this was done, is the report available for scrutiny? If not, where is the transparency. But, if no such drainage study was conducted, on what basis did the PP Government come to the conclusion that, not only will there be no additional flooding, but the construction of the Highway will in fact mitigate existing flooding problems.
RE-ROUTE REVISITED (PART 4): $800m TO SAVE 1 min
We are left to wonder on what basis did the EMA come to this conclusion in the light of the fact that there is no hydrology report. Can its reports be perused and assessed or are we asked “to buy cat in bag”. In the absence of transparency one can be justified in assuming that the EMA was prodded, perhaps bulldozed, in coming to this conclusion.
By far the greatest cost associated with the Debe to Mon Desir section of the Highway is the human cost of uprooting hundreds of families to face an uncertain socio-economic future in a strange location. Not only will livelihoods be negatively affected but also the education of children and peace of mind of all concerned. Among them the elderly, who have lived all their lives in familiar surroundings and have bonded with their existing environment, will experience the greatest anxiety, distress, trauma and sense of despair. The tears of the displaced families are sure to fall somewhere. The consequence will be the very opposite of human development. And all this suffering imposed on the families earmarked for evacuation is for what great national purpose. Is it to save a few minutes of travel time for some motorists?
Having discounted the possibility of any minimal industrial or commercial development in the Debe to Mon Desir area as a result of the construction of this segment of the Highway and acknowledging the certain loss to agricultural production, the only argument to be disposed of is that the Highway will reduce travel time and costs and ease traffic congestion as stated in the 1 page flyer of the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure. Let us therefore examine this much vaunted claim.
An initial point to be noted is that Trinidad is a small country in terms of land area and distances. The longest piece of 4 lane highway in Trinidad is just 48km from Golconda to the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway intersection. This Highway, however, has not significantly reduced traffic congestion on mornings and afternoons simply because we keep adding to the total number of vehicles on the roadways. But anyone who frequently travels this route will attest to the fact that, almost on a daily basis, heavy traffic congestion is experienced even during the course of the day either through countless accidents, perennial road repair works or police road blocks. The question is how much time is actually saved on this Highway route taking all the above factors into account. And, will it be any different on the proposed Debe to Mon Desir section.
Bearing in mind the short distances involved, we critically examine the net savings of time by the construction of this sector of the Highway. It is alleged that those travelling from the townships of Debe, Penal and Siparia will stand to benefit in terms of faster travel time. However, we need to bear two realities in mind- (a) the approaches to San Fernando either on the existing S.S. Erin Road and Southern Main Road route or the proposed Highway route via Golconda will both involve significant traffic congestion and (b) for those motorists and commuters from Debe, Penal or Siparia proceeding from Golconda to Couva, Chaguanas or Port of Spain the only saving in travel time will from their respective starting points to the Golconda intersection.
From Debe to Cross Crossing, San Fernando using the existing S.S. Erin Road and Southern Main Road is approximately 6km. Travelling at 50km per hour, it would take 7 minutes to make this 6km journey. However, using the proposed Highway from Debe to get to Cross Crossing one has to approach from the Golconda interchange and from Golconda to Cross Crossing, San Fernando is 3km so that this Highway route involves traversing 8km to reach Cross Crossing. Travelling at a highway speed of 80km per hour, this 8km would consume 6minutes of travel time.
The cost of building the Debe to Golconda section including the Interchange at Debe is approximately $800 million. This PP Government therefore is spending $800 million of borrowed money to save commuters 1 minute of travel time. If the argument is that the Highway will ease congestion, this is easily dismissed. On the existing route there is congestion from Palmiste to Cross Crossing. On the proposed Highway route there would be even more congestion from Golconda to Cross Crossing because there are two traffic lights and a merging ramp to be negotiated.
RE-ROUTE REVISITED: MORE IN THE MORTAR THAN PESTLE
In the previous column, I made the point that perhaps there was, at most, a saving of 1 minute of travel time from Debe to Cross Crossing, San Fernando via the proposed Highway route but at a cost of $800m or more. In addition, it should be borne in mind that, as far as accessing the proposed Debe Interchange near the NAMDEVCO Wholesale Market on the M2 Ring Road is concerned, vehicles from the S.S. Erin Road, Wellington Road, Papourie Road and Debe Trace will continue to have to go through the traffic congestion at Debe Junction. How much then is the much propagandized saving of travel time?
From Penal to Cross Crossing, San Fernando the distance is 11km. At 50km per hour, it will take 13 minutes to make this journey on the existing roads. However, using the proposed Highway through Golconda the distance is 13km and at 80 km per hour (highway speed), it would take 10 minutes to complete this journey. The saving in travel time is just 3mins. And the cost of the Highway from Golconda to the Penal Interchange is a minimum of $2.5bn. Again the public must be reminded that this PP Government is spending at least $2.5bn in a $10bn deficit national Budget so that some motorists from Penal and the environs can save 3 mins of travel time. It should also be noted that motorists who live between Debe and Penal and beyond must negotiate the traffic on the existing roads of at least 3km to access either the Interchange at Debe or Penal.
From Siparia to Cross Crossing, San Fernando along the existing roadways is a distance of 19km. Driving at 50 km per hour the distance would be covered in 23minutes.Using the proposed Highway route through Golconda, the distance increases to 21km and, at the highway speed of 80km per hour, it can be covered in 16 minutes. The saving in travel time is a mere 7 minutes from the furthest point to be serviced from the Debe to Mon Desir section of the Highway. However, by the time the construction of this section reaches the Siparia Interchange, the PP Government would have expended at least $4bn as per the original estimate (not including cost overruns) to save 7minutes of travel time in the context of a projected national Budget deficit of at least $10bn. One asks whether this level of expenditure on a single section of a project is making fiscal sense at this time.
But there currently exists a less costly alternative from Siparia to San Fernando. Motorists from Siparia and environs can travel along Murray Trace in Siparia to San Francique Road and then to La Fortune/Pluck Road and along the Southern Main Road through to Dumfries Road at the Intersection of the South Trunk Road in La Romaine. This is a distance of 14km much less than the proposed Highway route of 21km. Assuming a speed of 50km per hour this distance can be traversed in 17minutes- a mere 1 minute more than travelling on the proposed Highway. Murray Trace (4km), La Fortune/Pluck Road (8km) and the Southern Main Road (2km) can be upgraded at minimum cost to the Treasury (perhaps $200-300 m) with similar benefits to motorists in terms of travel time. To further facilitate motorists from Siparia, Alta Garcia Trace connecting the S.S. Erin Road at Siparia to San Francique Road can be upgraded for a few million dollars to by pass the S.S.Erin Road and traffic congestion especially at Penal Junction.
If the argument is that monies spent on the Debe to Mon Desir section of the Highway (approximately $5bn) is part of the expenditure designed to kick-start the economy, then I submit there are other more productive ways of achieving the same intended result. In any event, if there is a lack of confidence by the private sector, no amount of Government expenditure will persuade them to invest. All that will be achieved is that the liquidity of the banks will be further increased.
As I have noted earlier, there are many urgent projects of drainage infrastructure to be undertaken. In addition, there are scores of by pass roads that could be upgraded to relieve congestion on the major roadways. And there is a crying need for the repair, upgrading and resurfacing of hundreds of kms of existing roadways in the North, in the East, in Central and South. Anyone who has travelled on the Naparima/Mayaro Road from San Fernando to Mayaro would be more than stressed out by the deplorable condition of this roadway especially from Princes Town to Rio Claro including landslips, depressions, large pot holes and narrow widths. This portion of the Naparima/ Mayaro Road alone could consume more than $1bn and benefit thousands of commuters and motorists.
I return to my original observation that too many vested interests with designs on the Treasury are involved and must be accommodated- whether officials receiving kick-backs, investors in land along the proposed Highway route, contractors large and small who have already calculated their handsome profits, suppliers of aggregate at inflated prices especially that which is imported and the commissions of intermediaries, truck owners, financiers, consultants and sundry favoured beneficiaries. The court of public opinion is slowly coming to the realization that there is, more than likely a hidden agenda or agendas