OPINION: Cut the highways, look into buses, LRT
NST Online » 2008/07/12By : Chok Suat Ling
The Mid-Term Review of the Ninth Malaysia Plan did not sufficiently address urgent concerns about public transport, experts tell CHOK SUAT LING.
DENNIS Heng's office is situated in the heart of the Kuala Lumpur city centre. To get there, the management consultant has to weave through gridlocked traffic daily but he has persisted in doing so for three years.
His blood pressure is none the better for it but Heng says, half-jokingly, that his health would deteriorate further if he took public transport.
The problem is connectivity, among other things. From his apartment in Bandar Puchong Jaya, there is no bus or light rail transit (LRT) line which will take him directly to his office in Wisma Angkasa Raya, opposite the Petronas Twin Towers.
To take the LRT, he would have to walk for 15 minutes to board a feeder bus which would take him to the Bukit Jalil station. He would have to change trains at Masjid Jamek.
When he reaches KLCC, it would be another 10 minutes' walk to his office. "If it pours, I would be drenched," says Heng.
Taking the bus would be even worse, he claims: "If traffic is congested, it would take me close to two hours to reach the office. On the North-South expressway, I would already be in Malacca in that time."
What would make him switch to public transport? The recent hike in fuel prices certainly has not. Heng concedes that he would leave his car at home only if there is better connectivity:
"I am not asking for the LRT or bus to drop me off right at my office doorstep, but close by would be good and of course, sheltered walkways would help. Besides, buses should not only be more frequent but also arrive on schedule."
Indeed, the public transport system in the country continues to be in a muddle. Experts say the Mid-Term Review of the Ninth Malaysia Plan recently did not comprehensively address pertinent issues.
According to a United Nations Development Programme spokesman, it is not clear what projects or programmes will be developed within congested urban areas to reduce intra-city sprawl and congestion, or, more importantly, what policies will be implemented to support these changes.
"To achieve the target ratio of private vehicles to public transport of 70:30 by 2010, steps to improve inter-modal connectivity must go hand-in-glove with infrastructure expansion," she says, underscoring a need to restructure the current public transport network as well as phase out routes which are duplicated.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's public transport expert Prof Dr Abdul Rahim Mat Noor says very little about public transport was addressed in the Mid-Term Review. "There have been a lot of announcements with no follow-up."
Connectivity, he points out, remains a major problem: "This is not just about connectivity between terminals but also between the stations and buildings. In Singapore, Europe and North America, there are all-weather roofed pathways. In Singapore, some walkways are shaded by angsana trees. It is cool and breezy and you would not even feel you are walking in a tropical country."
He notes that another problem is conflicting interests among public transport users, operators, regulators and politicians.
"Users want low fares and high quality service; operators want higher fares for high quality service; the regulators want both parties to be satisfied. Politicians want what the grassroots want, which is low fares."
As a result of disparate interests, the users and operators end up the victims. Bus companies are suffering because while costs are escalating, their fares are not going up according to the inflation rate.
"The government must subsidise public transport operators. If not, users will end up with low quality service and low-demand routes will not be served as they are not profitable," says the academic.
Another matter of concern is the lack of permanency in public transport policies and regulations: "One press conference and everything changes. The withdrawal of subsidies from RapidKL is a good example."
Abdul Rahim urges the authorities to give the issues urgent attention for many people are affected, not just in the Klang Valley but in all major cities and towns in the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak:
"In rural areas, old buses emitting choking fumes are still running. In Kajang and Shah Alam, the minibuses are neglected and being run poorly. What the government is doing instead is to focus on building highways and expressways. This will encourage people to use cars."
What experts say is most crucial is the need to hasten the establishment of a single National Public Transport Commission to act as an umbrella body. Currently, no less than 13 agencies from different ministries are involved in a wide range of operations and this has led to overlaps, crossed signals and inefficiency.
Public transport expert Sulik Suleiman Salleh underscores the importance of having a body that thinks collectively and runs independently:
"The various ministries, agencies and departments are all playing different roles and this slows down progress in improving public transport nationwide," Sulik Suleiman, formerly with Universiti Darul Iman Malaysia, notes.
UKM's Abdul Rahim welcomes the proposed establishment of the commission, saying it could serve as a centre for the public to air their grouses: "What is more integral, however, is the need to set up a research, monitoring and data collection centre."
The government does not have data on many aspects of public transport like the cost of maintaining and servicing buses, the price of spare parts and labour, and the number of passengers on a specific route. Without this information, it is difficult to plan for the future."
Transport Minister Datuk Ong Tee Keat has taken note of the problems and says inter-connectivity within the Klang Valley will be enhanced.
City Hall, RapidKL and Syarikat Prasarana Negara Berhad (SPNB) are building aerobridges, covered walkways, escalators, lifts and access roads to major LRT, monorail, ERL (Express Rail Link) and KTM Komuter stations, especially in areas such as Jalan Raja Chulan, Jalan Sultan Ismail, KL Sentral, Bangsar, Petaling Jaya and Bank Negara, he points out.
A new LRT station will be opened at Seri Rampai and there are also plans to extend the LRT-Star (Sri Petaling) to USJ/Puchong, with eight new stations over a 15km stretch.
Another project involves the extension of the LRT-Putra to USJ/Puchong, with eight new stations stretching over 16km.
Detailed studies on both extension projects are expected to be completed this year. Both will be wholly-financed by SPNB under a privatisation and concession agreement.
Meanwhile, the RM633.8 million integrated transport terminal at Bandar Tasik Selatan, which will replace the old and congested Pudu Raya Terminal, will be fully integrated with the LRT-Star, Express Rail Link and KTM Komuter stations, within a radius of 200 metres.
The terminal, covering 95,000 square metres, will have 150 taxi bays, 60 bus platforms, 1,000 parking bays and will be connected by a six-lane highway to the Middle Ring Road 2 and Besraya highways. It is expected to be completed by December 2010.
A future integrated transport terminal for east-bound traffic at Gombak has been identified and will be implemented at a later stage.
Ong is also pushing for the formation of a public transport commission: "The system is fragmented now. There is confusion over who has jurisdiction over public transport projects.
"A central agency would make the system more efficient and connected."