Saturday, May 22, 2010

Election Primer A - Z: 'R' is for Rapid Rail Project

Reported at times to require an investment in excess of $30B, the Rapid Rail is one of those hall-mark projects that Governments love because of a) their high visibility and b) all the opportunities to milk the public purse. The Government appeared to be hell bent on pursuing this project as being pivotal to this country's modernization thrust, and commitmnets appear to have been made without even so much as the benefit of a cost-benefit analysis.

The recently held public consultations (after the fact) appear to be farcical at best - just one more motion to have checked off on some list in some office somewhere on the road to getting the job done. In Trinidad & Tobago we are introduced routinely to new nouns and verbs but two new ones (both verbs) stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The first is 'MANNING' as in 'TO PULL A MANNING', the definition of which is simply "to cut corners to get the job done and in the process disregard the intelligence of the many".

The second is related to the first and it is 'HART' as in 'TO BUST A HART'. Simply put, this refers to the same thing as 'pulling a Manning' but which is to do so with impugnity and for massive financial gain only to 'ups and disappear' only when the truth is found out or in local parlance: 'when de mark buss'.

On the issue of the Rapid Rail (or 'Raquet Rail' as refered to in some circles), there has been as little regard for the environment impact as for the economic impact. The project promises jobs for many, but also promises to displace a great deal more. Goodness knows what has spent to date. But one finds the timing of the latest PR blitz (via the national Newspapers) to be somewhat uncomfortable. The week of the General ELections alone, I counted no fewer than five full page adverts in support.

Worse yet, why isnt anyone concerned over the fact that two of the consortiums partners (Alstom and Buoygues Batiment) are under serious investigation in their home countries for bribery and corruption?

There are difficult questions that still need to be asked with respect to this project. And many more issues that need to be addressed. The most significant of which are:

1. What will be the total cost of the project?
2. What will be the annual cost of operating this system once completed?
3. Will receipts be enough to cover the cost of 1., 2., or both?
4. On what basis were the preferred contractors selected?
5. Will the completed project revert immediately to the ownership of the People of Trinidad & Tobago, or will the contractors retain some portion of ownership in perpetuity?
6. How many people will be displaced as a result of the proposed route(s)?
7. What is the overall cost of relocating the same?
8. Have necessary provisions been made for ample 'Park and Ride' facilities as well as to ramp up the satellite services that will bring would be commuters to and from the rail stations?

By my own estimation, it would be impossible for the Government to hope to ever recoup any significant portion of a $30B investment in this regard. Based on a proposed annual cost of $300M, and a daily carriage of 10,000 persons either way, the ticket price would have to be almost $60 just to ensure that this cost is met annually!

As I have said (and written) time and time again, traffic congestion could be immediately and economically dealt with through the introduction of 'flexed' hours (for schools, private sector employees and public sector employees with days that start at 7.30, 8.30 and 9.30 respectively each day), decentralization of government, an increased police presence (vigilance against indiscriminate stopping and overtaking) on the roads, and the creation of specific lay-bys for the safe pick up and drop-off of commuters.

Once again, basic common sense trumps a big project. Unfortunate for some, intelligent solutions have little room for graft.

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