EDITORIAL - Happy to avoid Mount Rosser
Tuesday's formal opening of the 19 kilometres of toll road between the towns of Linstead and Moneague is a big deal. Indeed, we dare say it is among the most significant bits of infrastructure development in Jamaica for the past 300 years, and certainly for the last 60.
This bit of roadway, the first leg of the 67-kilometre North-South Highway being built by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), has to be placed in its critical context, which is Jamaica's commercial geography. It so happens that the island's commercial and industrial capital is on the south coast, in and around the political capital, Kingston, which is built on the world's seventh largest natural harbour.
Over the past six decades, though, the north shore has developed as the hub of the country's biggest economic sector, tourism. It is also the home for a chunk of another part of another important industry, the mining and export of bauxite. There is also relatively healthy agriculture on the north coast.
Yet, as this newspaper has observed several times before, transportation between these two important regions has been dictated largely by a short, low and narrow, brick bridge, built more than three centuries ago, across a sometimes dangerous river in a deep gorge. We refer, respectively, to the Flat Bridge and Rio Cobre in the Bog Walk gorge, which becomes impassable when the river is in spate and overflows its banks. The danger is not only from the river; there are, too, the boulders that, not infrequently, tumble from the overhanging hills.
These, though, are not all. Which brings us to the immediate effect of this piece of road. Beyond Flat Bridge and the Rio Cobre gorge is the harrowing, winding drive along steep precipices, up and over Mount Rosser and beyond, with passenger vehicles, trailers and delivery trucks competing for a space on a road inadequate for the traffic but about which little can be done. The first segment of the highway, at the price of the toll, will eliminate that haul up Mount Rosser.
BIGGER GAINS TO COME
Beyond the ease on the stress on nerves of motorists, the opening of this segment of the road, by saving time and wear and tear on vehicles, should impact positively on productivity and, therefore, benefit the Jamaican national economy. The bigger gains will come when the other two legs of the highway are completed by the end of 2015, cutting the normal two-hour travel time between Kingston and the north-coast town of Ocho Rios to 45 minutes.
We feel that the full highway will unlock economic activity, including internal tourism, beyond the projections of the formal analyses, thus enhancing CHEC's ability to get a full payback and a decent profit on its US$610-million investment over the 50 years of its concession. Our unscientific expectation, however, should be bolstered by the creative arrangement by which the Government will provide land along the highway to CHEC for domestic and commercial developments - in other words, the creation of traffic for the highway.
We wish that CHEC is successful and that this is a win-win project: profits for CHEC and infrastructure and economic development for Jamaica. Our only demand is for transparency in all the arrangements, including the basis of any Jamaican assets transferred to our Chinese partners.
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