5 reasons why the Penang transport plan is a white elephant

OVER the past three years, various concerns regarding the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) has 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 that is 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 demands for the sale of land in these reclaimed islands.

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

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 Sg 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 (see figure below).

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 does not apply to Penang and calls for a holistic review on the feasibility and concerns of the PTMP continues to fall on deaf ears.

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

Worse, 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 (see figure below).

For an absolute comparison, despite KL having a larger population, the Sg 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 the projected economic benefits would be significantly lower, the loss in ticket revenues could also cost at least RM120 million 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 in the figure), local traffic problems within an urban area (red circles in the figure) 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 for the increased traffic from the PIL1.

Worse, independent studies from local universities and civil societies have also estimated that free-flowing traffic in the PIL1 can only be maintained for around 7 years after it is operational. Beyond that, Penang is expected to return back to square one of experiencing worsening traffic congestion once again, despite spending RM9.6 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). We 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 Masterplan

On the whole, the quantitative evidence summarised in this article shows that the extremely high cost 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. – April 21, 2019.

* Roger Teoh is a PhD postgraduate studying at the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College London and reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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  • "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?" Such a dumb question. Why would 8-9million New Yorkers squeeze into a small city when they all can stay in Ohio or Minnesota where there is plenty of land?

    Posted 4 years ago by CF Ch · Reply

    • Ohio and Minnesota is part of New York meh?

      The author wrote other areas in the state, not moving out of the state

      Posted 4 years ago by Um ar · Reply

  • The final paragraph is important. Flexibility of Public Policy. The govt wont be able to initiate change in response to public demand - such as No Tolls on Arterial Routes - due to locked in long term debt or expensive redemption of guarantees. Writer raised good points - however , the CM of Developers Action Party , is hell bent to execute this project. I doubt the CM gives a shit about hollowing out of rural / agricultural folks from the southside of island - especially the Malay population. I guess all the folks from Gertak Sanggul will end up in Seberang Perai somewhere.

    Posted 4 years ago by [email protected] · Reply

  • Save your energy and effort to object the ECRL better than on PIL. Continue to voice your disagreement with suggestions, otherwise I don't think u will be heard and responded. But don't object totally bcos u know the state govt is trying their beat to improve the traffic infrastructure.

    Posted 4 years ago by James Wong · Reply

  • Roger , by all means, give your inputs on how to improve base on the agreed assumptions. If u only complaint without suggestions, nobody would want to listen to u. I m not a Penangite but I didn't see any projects in Penang done by PH is an elephant project. Offer your alternative to the current master plan and put publish it. We outsiders would want to hear your piece, if it makes sense, we will support u. BUT not now yet, u have to prove your worth by convincing the public your plan is better off.

    Posted 4 years ago by James Wong · Reply

    • If Roger can develop a master plan by himself with the amount of resources he have, then the state government should close shop.

      Theres a master plan that was adopted by the state government (government paid it btw), it was called Halcrow Report which if you read is totally different from the current master plan

      Posted 4 years ago by Um ar · Reply