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Stabroek News

Tolled over the edge
published: Sunday | September 3, 2006

- Norman Grindley /Deputy Chief Photographer
A section of the Portmore Highway.

Errol Hewitt, Contributor

"For such people are not serving our Lord Christ but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of nave people."Romans 16: 18.

"Simply put, if the Government improves the Mandela as promised, or develops the railway, it must compensate the owners of Highway 2000 or increase the toll," states Dr. Orville Taylor in his article "Not so fast" in the August 6 issue of The Sunday Gleaner, commenting on the contract between the Government and the developers of Highway 2000.

Dr. Taylor is right. There is cause for serious concern. Essentially, in light of continuing rising oil prices any cheaper form of transportation by the public other than by road [i.e. the toll road and not just any road or the railroad], has been effectively discouraged. How could such a policy with serious implications for everyone in the country be determined seamlessly within government without an input from the people or Her Majesty's loyal Opposition?

At a time when oil-importing countries, conscious of the negative effect on the prices of all goods and services and the resulting pressure on especially the poor, are feverishly seeking ways to reduce the use of oil and maximise fuel efficiency, Jamaica removes a more fuel-efficient option. So many things in our country decry logic and explanations are clouded if ever seriously offered. How are we to pay for this? Oil has not been found here yet and the St. Catherine gold seems not to have 'panned' out.

As in the colonial days, this policy decision seems to be 'parachuted' to us. But colonial days are behind us - or are they? If not, will our new colonial masters all be returning to the "motherland" after this?

Are we, the taxpaying public the only sheep in the fold, spectators to our own destiny? How was the decision arrived at? Whose interest is furthered by this?

Heavily indebted

"Jamaica has one of the highest energy intensity rates in Latin America and the Caribbean" asserts the Government's energy policy. The reality is that we are heavily in debt and over 66 per cent of our merchandise exports is increasingly being used annually simply to purchase oil. This size expenditure reduces our ability to meet other pressing needs, such as [adequately paying our professionals and] funding development programmes. There are also negative implications on our balance of payments, exchange rate stability and the reduction of the deficit, made worse by a deepening corruption involving billions of dollars annually for which no one is responsible. Miss Lou would ask: 'Bad duppy?'

The oil situation is getting worse because of the deepening political instability in the Middle East and the general prognosis on the international market is for continuing rising prices, at least over the medium term, due largely to spiralling demand from China and India which strains supplies and threatens to outstrip them in the near future. Longer-term supplies are likely to continue to be tight given the nature of known reserves and much higher extraction costs.

In Jamaica's case, the three largest consumers of oil are bauxite/alumina processing (about 36.1 per cent); electricity generation (24.3 per cent) and amazingly, road transportation (22.2 per cent). These figures tell the story starkly. Our use of the road is a major national expense in funds and lives.

Jamaica cannot continue to base its decisions on the historically proven narrow and incomplete concepts of personalities in the inner circles of the political leadership - concepts which, like the parable of seeds on rocky ground, flourish briefly and then wither because of insufficiencies to sustain them. Instead we must return to the basics of empirical facts, trends and analyses which undergird objectively-agreed plans, focused on ensuring the productive/innovative utilisation of all our people.

Resolving the issues

Government's energy policy [2006-2020] focuses on the generation/use of electricity and on the use of oil for transportation - including renewable energy sources [solar/wind power]; an energy fund facilitating conservation and replacing/ upgrading for enhanced energy efficiency. Fuel efficiency is proposed through hybrid electric-gasolene vehicles, diesel engines and compressed natural gas vehicles, as well as converting sugar cane into ethanol as a mix with petroleum.

The transport policy emphasises integrating the transport network into a seamless system and harmonising the fragmented policies on housing, land use, utilities and transportation. Importantly, it seeks to resuscitate the freight and port services of the [1845 established] railroad and the commercial utilisation of its workshops.

Given the terms of the contract being discussed here, it's not surprising that missing in the policy is any detailed reference to mass transit by rail.

Road construction is especially commendable when it fits into a determined socio-economic programme; is in keeping with set schedules/ priorities; and is based on a proper harmonisation in respect of efficiencies/cost effectiveness of all modes of transportation, e.g. rail, roads, sea/air routes, etc.

It would be useful to understand both how the current and proposed toll roads fit into this context and the importance of loans in road construction. Twelve per cent loans for example ought to prove unaffordable and a significant multiplier of other costs. "Is that Portmore's experience?"

About 43.3 per cent [1.14 million] of Jamaica's population reside in St. Catherine/Kingston and St. Andrew; an impressive percentage work in or attend schools in the general Corporate Area. There is also a significant number of persons working or going to school in Montego Bay and its environs, drawn from points not only in St. James but also in neighbouring parishes, Hanover, Trelawny.

Reliable means of transportation needed

The recent 'toll road' issue between the Government and the Portmore citizens clearly indicates the need for a cheaper, safer, faster, reliable means of transportation between that dormitory city and the Kingston metropolitan environs. The intensity and consistency of the daily use of the Mandela Highway demonstrates that Greater Portmore and all the other dormitory towns to Kingston, stretching from Spanish Town towards May Pen, also have similar needs.

In discussing transport as a major physical infrastructure in a developing country, considerations cannot be restricted to the immediate and must include both the medium and long-term factors such as population growth, housing trends and locations, internal travel projections, changes in the economic base; future plans e.g. Will the main international airport on the south coast still be at the Palisadoes peninsular or will it be at Vernamfield or some such centralised location? If so, what will that entail?

In major cities around the world, the more economical, petrol efficient, safer railroad provides mass transit from rural and semi-urban areas to strategic points to and within the city, dovetailing with the more flexible bus/taxi system. A reliable mass transit rail traditionally helps to reduce the housing pressure in the city; encourages niche-driven agriculture in rural and semi-rural areas; and, enhances community development in significant ways, e.g. the benefit of resident professionals working in the city.

Fuel efficiency

We are heavily in debt and must do everything possible to ensure fuel efficiency is optimised nationally, remembering that at least 22 per cent of oil consumed in Jamaica each year is burnt up on our roads.

The railroad as a mover of freight has for decades been proven safer, more reliable, cheaper and more fuel efficient than road transport - more so now with such vast improvements in the technology. With its own rails, it also maintains contact with small towns which road travel literally 'by-passes'. The addition of a modern passenger service enhances the viability of rail transportation, reduces oil consumption while providing a consistently on-time service, safer, faster and at lower cost to the passenger.

With our railroad virtually abandoned for years and its importance to our future development, substantial funding will be required and we do not suggest using 12 per cent money. Every effort has to be made to secure soft funding, perhaps a re-consideration of the use of the PetroCaribe facility or other road construction funding.

Culture for cars

Our culture for cars at any cost has been learned over the last 30-40 years by a generation deprived of a clean, safe, reliable and well-managed mass transit service in an environment unaccustomed to accountability, transparency and discipline. The fact is that the present 'culture' is uneconomic and not in the national interest. Given the proper environment, surely Jamaicans like their relatives in the diaspora, would welcome the week days functionality and savings to be realised from using a fast, safe, clean, well-managed modern mass transit rail service! [Weekend driving ought to be more relaxing and economic while profiling.]

The more we bring thorough and responsible thinking to bear on national issues [instead of selfish pursuits], the more readily we must realise that present decisions have an impact on our future as individuals and as a nation.

Errol Hewitt is an information and communication technology planning consultant with the United Nations and the Commonwealth Secretariat.

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