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Raffique Shah


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An issue more important than crime

By Raffique Shah
August 9, 2015

We columnists are on a roll during "elections season", but in my 34 years of writing commentaries, I have never enjoyed a long, scandalous, comical campaign as the current one.

It's so good, or bad (depending on one's perspective), readers have taken to telephoning or emailing me with suggestions as to what I should address.

This week, most readers pleaded with me to deal with UNC campaign manager Rodney Charles. This circus clown has so infuriated people with his infantile behaviour, I think, just from the feedback I've had, he has cost the UNC more floating votes than all the scandals the party piled up during its five years in office,

But how do you reason with a man who is devoid of rational thinking, who sees modern election campaigning as a mix of buffoonery, entertainment and high-tech harassment? You can't.

So I shan't waste my time on him, not when there are serious issues we need to address.

Transport and traffic woes, which are separate but connected problems as transport engineers Rae Furlonge and Trevor Townsend never tire of telling us, are more urgent than even crime, because they affect all of us every day, almost everywhere in the country.

The chaos on the nation's roads is costly in man-hours lost and extra fuel consumed in traffic jams, not to add its negative impact on commuters' health, surely amounting to many billions of dollars a year.

The number of motor vehicles on our roadways, said to be some 800,000, is simply unacceptable. No other country of similar size and economic stature has such vehicle-density.

This has come about because we have no effective mass transit system, fuels (diesel and gasoline) are dog-cheap, we import seven-year-old foreign used vehicles, and we have no vehicle obsolescence programme.

To rectify these problems, we need to do several things. In addition to ensuring that the existing roads are properly maintained, there is consensus that we complete the highway to Point Fortin, and we build two more four-lane highways: San Fernando to Mayaro and Cumuto to Manzanilla.

Both main contending parties speak of a new main road that will connect Valencia and Toco (and necessarily Matelot), and a causeway (or some other "way") between Cocorite and Chaguaramas.

With respect to the Chaguaramas link, while it is essential, we need to bear in mind that it will service no more than 50,000 vehicles a day (if that many), and that the more densely populated Diego Martin and environs will hardly benefit from it. In other words, do not overspend on this project.

Regarding Toco, the PNM is reviving the idea of a full port-cum-ferry service to Tobago, while the UNC is touting a 28-mile bridge over very deep and treacherous waters. Forget these fantasiesówe do not need them, and the costs will be prohibitive.

Instead, expand the Trinidad-Tobago ferry link from Port of Spain to another facility somewhere between Point Lisas and San Fernando: there are several abandoned piers that can be restored to facilitate a new, easily accessible ferry terminal with parking, etc.

The multi-billion-dollar challenge is what is the best option for a mass transit system that will solve the East-West and North-South jams? The PNM is once again promoting rail, although it has retreated from rapid rail. It is also talking mass transit.

The UNC proposes bus rapid transit (BRT), which I support, having studied the options extensively, and having read or listened to the experts, Furlonge and Townsend. Thing is the UNC could have easily started implementing BRT immediately after it added two lanes to the Butler Highway between Chaguanas and the CR-highway intersection.

All that was required was to proclaim the slow (left) lanes in each direction "bus only" during peak hours (6 a.m.-9 a.m., 3 p.m.-6 p.m.), and enforce the exclusivity of the PBR to PTSC buses and large maxi-taxis. Also, eliminate all traffic lights on the PBR (except, perhaps, Morvant, Mt Hope and Curepe) by erecting pre-fabricated overpasses for lighter north-south traffic.

Instead, it opened the PBR to all motorists, thus impeding the buses when they most needed to move rapidly. And it was the UNC that extended the age limit of foreign used vehicles from five to seven years.

I should add that rail and BRT are not mutually exclusive: we can have both. Problem is rail is very expensive (at least US$20 million a mile vs $1-$5 million a mile for new bus-ways) and it takes longer to construct.

Whoever takes office on September 8 should almost immediately implement the limited BRT that's practical on our current infrastructure. It will, however, require much more to mitigate our transport and traffic woes.

If the politicians don't side-track me with freak-shows, I shall explore this issue further in another column.

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