Thu | Oct 21, 2021

Editorial | Clear the air on Junction Road

Published:Wednesday | October 13, 2021 | 12:10 AM
EG Hunter, CEO of the National Works Agency (NWA)
EG Hunter, CEO of the National Works Agency (NWA)

There will be suspicion that E.G. Hunter, the CEO of the National Works Agency (NWA), did not, without political green light, float the idea of shelving the problem-plagued project to improve the Junction Road, which runs from the hilly reaches of northern St Andrew and through the north-eastern parish of St Mary.

But whatever the origin of the suggestion, Mr Hunter is obligated to provide to the public a detailed accounting of the scheme so far, including expenditure, what exactly has been done, the specifics of the problems it has faced, and what it would cost to complete the project.

In a different circumstance, we might have suggested that Parliament’s Infrastructure and Human Resources Committee invite Mr Hunter and his technocrats to hearings on the matter. But that committee has shown little initiative in undertaking its responsibilities.

And if it were possible for it to rouse itself from its funk, we have little confidence in its chairman, Heroy Clarke, to lead it on a robust, fact-finding mission. Judging from his role in the attempted political takedown of Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis at hearings of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) earlier this year, he would probably interpret the committee’s job as being merely a linebacker for the Government.

So Mr Hunter, in the interest of transparency and public accountability, to which we believe he is committed, may have to pursue this one solo, and on his own accord.

ECONOMIC PRIORITY

The Junction Road is winding and treacherous. Especially in bad weather when boulders can tumble down hillsides. There are also many drops from the road into deep ravines. But the Junction Road is important – or used to be. It passes through several communities in St Andrew and St Mary, and is one of two links between Jamaica’s eastern parishes and the capital region, the Kingston and St Andrew metropolitan area.

It made sense, therefore, that the Government decided to widen and to take some of the twists out of Junction’s more dangerous sections. The rehabilitation and improvement was to cover 18.4 kilometres, from Tom’s River, St Andrew, to Agualta Vale, St Mary. The first phase was to be 4.8 kilometres, between Broadgate and Agualta Vale.

However, Mr Hunter, whose agency manages the Government’s infrastructure projects, is now questioning the economic priority of the fix, given the work on the South Coast Highway, which will provide a modern route, along the island’s south shore, from Kingston to the eastern parish of Portland. After that, it is a hop around the bend into St Mary.

“So, at this point in time, the consideration goes to: ‘Do we need three new corridors to go from Kingston to Portland?’” was Mr Hunter’s rhetorical quip to this newspaper. His reference to three routes includes the connection between the capital, via the North-South Highway, and the South Coast Highway, which runs along the island’s northern shore, west to east, almost from tip to tip.

The new south coast road is a multi-billion-dollar project. Its development, Mr Hunter argues with apparent logic, makes the expenditure on the Junction Road less attractive than at one time, that is, four years ago. Which is where the need for better and further particulars come in. For example, in 2017 when the work on the Junction Road began, the South Coast Highway was well into planning.

Indeed, the project was on the drawing board during the life of the previous administration. Negotiations had already taken place with the Chinese government for loans to finance the project. The South Coast Highway, therefore, was not out of the blue.

THE FULL STORY

Further, the start of the Junction road redevelopment was mired in political controversy. The phase was planned for a parliamentary constituency where, when it was announced in September 2017, a by-election was imminent. Victory for the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) would expand its very narrow majority in the House. The Opposition accused the government of spending to buy votes. So, the redevelopment of the Junction Road was, on the face of it, a seriously considered policy decision.

Beyond any probable political manoeuvrings, there are hard economic questions relating to the project that need sorting out. Four years ago, it was announced that the project would cost J$626 million – in 2017 money. In retrospect, it was never made clear whether that was for completing the 18.4 kilometres or the 4.8-kilometre stretch between Broadgate and Agualta Vale. We take it that it was the latter, or J$130.4 million per kilometre for those 4.8 kilometres. Except that the first phase has not, it seems, been completed. More than J$1 billion has been spent. That represents an overrun of 62 per cent.

The NWA encountered engineering difficulties and faced natural disasters. But Mr Hunter would appreciate that ordinary folks would like to know why the planners seemed to get it so wrong, and what caused the policymakers to roll the dice on Junction when the South Coast Highway was also in play. Taxpayers deserve to have the full story.