Editorial | Avoid highway apartheid
As Prime Minister Andrew Holness said, good roads, such as the 23-kilometre addition of the tolled east-west corridor of Highway 2000 that was opened last week, are important to the country’s economic growth and development.
“Good infrastructure enables trade, drives businesses, connects workers to their jobs, and creates opportunities,” Mr Holness said at the opening of the new segment of the highway. “Without good infrastructure it is difficult to attract investment [and] create jobs.”
Indeed, the new stretch of highway and associated works, built at a cost of US$188 million in mostly Chinese loans will, on the face of it, enhance travel along Jamaica’s southern coast and improve connection between the island’s southern and central parishes.
But as this newspaper has suggested before, even as the Government continues the buildout of the island’s road infrastructure, these developments should incorporate a deeper discussion of a national transportation policy, as well as the pricing of travel on the tolled highways. With respect to the latter issue, rates on the Jamaica North-South Highway, owned by the Chinese state-owned firm China Harbour Engineering (CHEC), is of especial interest.
Before the opening of the 66-kilometre North-South Highway, the major route between Jamaica’s two critical economic regions, Kingston, the political and industrial capital, in the south, and the tourism and key bauxite-mining areas in the north, was a narrow, winding road along a landslide-prone gorge, and across a temperamental river, spanned by a centuries-old, low stone bridge that was impassable at the river’s first spate.
It is not only the stress of the travel between the two regions that has lessened, but also the time. The old two-hour journey between Kingston and the north shore town of Ocho Rios is now down to 45 minutes via the highway.
However, the recent increase in tolls on the North-South Highway has again raised questions about its pricing policy, and whether the road is delivering on its potential in spurring economic activity between the two regions.
Additionally, the opening of the new May Pen, Clarendon, to Williamsfield, Manchester leg of the east-west road has also caused questions, though less shrill, about the likely affordability of using that road. Which is why a full and frank discussion on the efficacy of the toll roads, taking into account the interests and legal obligations of all parties, should take place. This would be useful in the context of an overarching, development-guided transportation/infrastructure policy and plan.
As a ‘private’ company, Jamaica North South Highway does not make public its financial statement or operating information. It therefore cannot be readily determined if traffic on the highway is in keeping with the company’s projections and its income in line with its estimates when CHEC invested an estimated US$700 million in building the road. Neither is it clear whether, given America’s increasing efforts to dissuade Latin American and Caribbean countries from deepening relations with China, if it remains committed to investing in hotels and communities along the highway’s route (on lands pledged by the Jamaica Government), so as to help stimulate traffic on the road and improve the viability of the investment.
What is however known – based on data published by the National Road Operating and Constructing Company, the government company that promotes highway developments – is that in the 2019-20 financial year, 4.417 million people used the North-South Highway, an average of 12,100 per day.
Traffic on the North-South Highway was approximately 16 per cent that of the publicly listed TransJamaica’s east-west route, which runs through, or is adjacent to, several of the island’s most heavily populated communities, including Portmore, just west of Kingston.
While demographics clearly limit traffic on the north-south route, several critics argue that the high cost of using the road is a major deterrent. The recent hikes increased the toll (excluding motorcycles) between 13 and 24 per cent. A regular motor car (class 1) driving the full 66 kilometres of the highway now pays $2,320, or $4,640 return – a hike of 22 per cent. For a SUV 1.7 metres high, the cost, one way, is $4, 465, up to 24 per cent. In other words, driving to Ocho Rios and back costs $8,930. These are not the kind of costs that are easily affordable to most Jamaicans.
Toll rates are based on expected rates of return, but adjustments are determined annually, in accordance with a clearly defined formula that is linked to movements in Jamaica’s consumer price index, the value of the Jamaican dollar against its US counterpart, and the companies’ debt. If the Government (through its toll regulator) decides against awarding increases applied for that fall within the formula, it is obligated under the agreements to compensate the companies.
This newspaper believes in the sanctity of contracts and the law. However, Jamaica has nearly two decades experience with modern toll roads – seven years with respect of the North-South highway – and should therefore be in a position to determine what has worked and what may be in need of adjustment. Though loudest there, it is not with respect to the north-south segment the affordability question arises.
The challenge for the Government is to make the highways work for all Jamaicans.