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Chris Tufton: Toll roads and rural development

Published:Sunday | September 20, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Christopher Tufton
Taj-Marie and dancehall entertainer Spice chat with each other before having their ackee and saltfish with breadfruit at Faith's Pen in St Ann. The decades-old rest stop could see declining patronage with the opening of the North-South Highway which has cut travel time from Linstead to Moneague to 15 minutes.
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Below are excerpts from an address to the Kiwanis Club of Linstead, St Catherine, on September 16.

There is a sense of expectation in communities like Linstead, St Catherine, on the pending opening of the Kingston to Ocho Rios leg of highway 2000, slated for early 2016.

In addition, travellers moving across country are excited about the prospects of a shorter and easier travel time using the new toll road.

This road construction has also created economic opportunities for local communities along its path. Equipment operators, truck drivers, flagmen, lunch providers would have all benefited from this activity, an estimated 1,000 local workers in total.

Even with the periodic levels of inconvenience, including delays, noise and dust nuisance, expected economic benefits encourage understanding, at least for a time.

But as construction of the new highway draws to completion, small rural communities like Linstead will also need to confront the likely dislocation caused from a bypass road diverting from their town.

The question for these citizens and the authorities is, has their been any recent assessment on the implications of this new highway infrastructure on the livelihood and lifestyle of these rural towns?

LIKELY IMPLICATIONS

Economists and policymakers agree that in any country seeking development and growth, improving infrastructure like roads, telecommunications, ports and bridges enhances the capacity for economic activities. Infrastructure is a key enabler for encouraging investment and trade.

Highway 2000 is an important economic enabler. For example, a study done back in 2010 on the implications of the Mount Rosser bypass suggests that approximately 9,000 vehicles traversed Mount Rosser per day. At the same time, it is anticipated that an additional 3,000 would use the route should the highway be completed and would unlikely to if there was no highway.

The benefits for increased economic activity are, therefore, real with improved road infrastructure, but one must also appreciate the need to engage in proper analysis and planning to include anticipated consequences on rural communities that are bypassed.

So as we cut the ribbon and pop the champagne in celebration of another milestone in advancing national infrastructure, we need to ask a few important questions.

What about small rural communities whose commercial activities will be negatively impacted by less traffic moving through their towns?

Those affected would include the small-business operators who depend on the traffic flow and their pedestrians who are likely to stop for a drink or purchase petrol or a piece of cane or a fruit. What about the cookshops, bars and gas stations?

In 2001, there was an economic assessment study done that included the impact of the highway on rural communities. However, by now, this study would be outdated and needs updating.

PROGRESS WITH CONSEQUENCES

It is a fact that we should be prepared to accept that progress does come with consequences. And consequences of dislocation are very likely for many businesses in towns like Linstead. It is also true that consequences could also open up opportunities.

For example, I would imagine that the planners and investors of Highway 2000 would have done their financial modelling and estimated the traffic throughput and estimated revenues flows as a consequence.

They will hire persons from the communities to work on the highway as toll collectors and maintenance crew.

At the same time, it is estimated that up to 40 per cent or more reduced traffic flow through these bypassed towns could be a consequence of the toll road. This is likely to mean that traditional small businesses are likely to suffer the consequences of this reduction.

NEED FOR ANALYSIS AND PLANNING

The challenge is how we integrate this type of infrastructure development, Highway 2000, in preserving and enhancing the quality of life of small rural communities, like Linstead, that while the communities may be bypassed by the toll roads, the people are not bypassed of their livelihood and well-being.

This issue represents another case of the importance of rural planning.

As a country, we need greater rural planning to ensure better coordination between construction of highways and realisation of economic opportunities for rural people.

This has to start with a sensitisation of the people living in these communities.

They must understand the implications of this transformation. Implications for their livelihoods as well as possible opportunities to be opened up if they are willing to adjust.

A call should be made to the leaders of these communities, including political representatives and civic leaders, to encourage discussion around this issue.

Enquire about the long-term plans for these communities and begin to prepare for the impact of this new infrastructure.

The Government, through the Planning Institute of Jamaica, must move to renew, with community participation, that economic assessment study on the impact of the highway and encourage greater coordination between the community, developers and the Government, to ensure that they exploit the opportunities that will emerge, even while they prepare for the challenges of dislocation.

- Chris Tufton is a former minister of government and co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, a think tank based at the University of the West Indies. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and cctufton@gmail.com