Simple things that count

By Raffique Shah
January 8, 2020

Raffique ShahNo major infrastructural project exposes the huge, costly gap, both in time and money, between the decision to undertake critical public works projects and their implementation and delivery to the populace than the extension of the Solomon Hochoy Highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin.

This relatively simple roads-and-bridges construction, variously estimated at between 40 and 47 kilometres, and set to cost taxpayers approximately $8 billion, was in its preliminary stages when Patrick Manning was Prime Minister (2007-2010). Design works were completed and Brazil’s Construtora OAS was said to have been named as the preferred bidder although no contract had been awarded or physical works started.

Construction got underway during Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s stewardship, with OAS selected as the sole contractor, and its completion scheduled for well before the People’s Partnership’s term of office expired in 2015. It was hailed as the flagship project of the PP. Sections of the designs were altered to accommodate Debe and surrounding districts that are considered solid United National Congress support-bases. Those changes in the route ignited strong protests from environmental activists led by Wayne Kublalsingh.

The protestors objected to the re-routing of the Debe to Mon Desir section of the highway, claiming that such works would negatively impact the Oropouche wetlands that are vital to the environment of a huge part of southwest Trinidad. Street protests and court battles ensued, and by the time the PP/UNC was voted out of office in 2015, the project was a mess of mud, ugly craters, rusting steel, abandoned equipment and site offices.

l shall not delve into the allegations of wanton corruption that haunt the recently-restarted project. Those are matters for the police and the courts to deal with. I am focusing here on how this cantankerous nation can, and so often does, take what should be a simple problem, complicate (I almost wrote “constipate”) it with an overdose of politics of the nastiest nature, and end up not just looking like fools, but being fools of the first order.

During the 15 years or so that we wasted quarreling over a much-needed, quite simple four-lane highway that will make life easier for people who live or work in the highly-industrialised southwest quadrant of the island, China put us to shame twice. In February 2005, it started construction of what was then the world’s longest bridge over the sea—26.4 miles. It was completed and opened by December 2011. It links the eastern port city of Quingdao with an island 18 miles away. The well-constructed, six-lane feat of sophisticated engineering currently caters for daily traffic of an estimated 300,000 vehicles, a number that will grow as the industries and residents in the environs expand.

So the project caters for future development, not just current challenges.

And as if the Chinese knew of our petty Point Fortin road woes, in 2018 they went farther—opening a 34-mile, cross-ocean bridge that links Hong Kong and Macau with mainland China. According to a BBC news report in October, 2018, when President Xi Jinping officially opened it, the structure had taken an unusually long nine years to be completed, and cost an estimated US $11 billion. “About 30km of its total length crosses the sea of the Pearl River delta. To allow ships through, a 6.7km section in the middle dips into an undersea tunnel that runs between two artificial islands.”

Now, I am aware that I am making comparisons here that are unfair to Trinidad and Tobago, given our miniscule size and economy to China’s. But it is also true that the level of engineering and other skills-set harnessed, not to add manpower, equipment and materials required for our highway project are Lilliputian when compared with what China will have utilised on these futuristic feats.

In other words, we have no excuses for our two-by-two highway extension dragging on for as long as it has, none whatsoever. Now that the project has been broken up into several “packages” and farmed out to a number of reputable local contractors, maybe motorists will soon enjoy rather than endure the drive to La Brea, Point Fortin, Siparia, Palo Seco and other deep-south destinations.

Still, I find it is criminal for three successive governments to subject citizens to such inordinate time- and cost-overruns on just about every public works project government undertakes. How long has the Red House been under renovation? It seems like forever. In fact, with its reoccupation underway, and Parliament preparing to return to its purpose-built home, many citizens are monitoring the move nervously, wondering if something will go wrong as happens all too often in this country.

As we aim to achieve developed-country status, much like China is doing—oh yes, China will soon overtake the USA as the world’s biggest economy, but its gloss does not conceal huge swathes of abject poverty, or the reality that standards of living lag way behind Europe’s, North America’s, Japan’s, Australia and a few others—it’s the simple things that are doable, which we ignore, that keep us branded with the Third World stamp.

I am on the road infrequently nowadays, what with my impediments. But on one foray recently, I could not help but note miles of unsightly, tangled webs of utility wires and cables, almost all of which are no longer in use (besides four electricity conductors, there ought to be no more than three fibre-optic cables). But no one has even thought of ordering the offending companies to remove the dead lines or face penalties.

Potholes, which T&T seems to have trade-marked with pride, scar an otherwise decent network of paved roads. And we still need some rocket scientist to invent immovable manhole covers to make our pavements look like sidewalks, not death-traps.

Look, we don’t need to build a bridge between Toco and Tobago to compete with China or move up the global look-good, feel-good ladder. Simple things can take us there, if only we take pride in ourselves, in our country. Is that asking for too much?

5 thoughts on “Simple things that count”

  1. Mastering the art of building bridges, buildings and roads will not miraculously convert us to a First World country.
    There are other more important character attributes which we should first work on : competence, honesty, humility and yes those three words from our long held slogan, discipline, tolerance and production.
    Our people are enslaved by vanity and conceit. Everyone knows everything about anything.
    The colonial mentality still dominates, even subconsciously.Our leaders are uncivilized and uncivil in their approach to dealing with conflict.
    If we ever succeed in building character in our people, then we might try building bridges.

  2. Lt Shah. We need more of these articles exposing Trinidad and Tobago for what we are. Triboganians are very fickle and do not show any love for our country. We design roads and interchanges with the highest cost in mind. There seems to be no desire and need by the persons in the Ministry of Works to design roads, buildings and interchanges with cost effectiveness, commonsense, and value for money for the people of TT. Take the simple Curepe interchange. This is a simple case where a minor road meets a major highway. In Developed countries the highway will be elevated and the minor road allowed to pass under the elevated highway. There would be side roads and easy access to the highway. There would be no need to acquire 41 properties costing hundreds of millions of dollars and displacing people from their long term residences. But here again- the old saying – The larger the contract the higher the take back. I agree with the contents of the article by TMan.

  3. Infrastructure development is one of the primary standard of economic development. The PP had in mind to complete the Point Fortin Highway and fix the road at the mouth of the Godineau. For years under the PNM, people drove their vehicles in the salty water which caused the vehicle to rust faster. Finally the road was completed without a shoulder.

    It takes intelligence to build a country. It takes vision to move forward. The building of the Diego Martin highway by the PP eased congestion considerably up north. The same would have happen in a nation where families own several cars if the Point Fortin Highway was completed. Highways are critical for moving goods and services. Reduced time to deliver consumables aid in economic growth and add more taxes to the nation coffers.

    This is the 21st century and yet roads are like the post colonial era. About a year ago the ministry of works with much fanfare purchased two pothole fixing machines. Yet the road in Piparo from the mud volcano is covered with potholes. How are people in this “happy go lucky” nation suppose to escape with their lives in the unlikely event of a major volcanic eruption.

    If you are collecting taxes, citizens expect the roads in TnT to look like those in Barbados where no pitchlake exist. Pitch from Trinidad is used all over Europe even to fix the tarmac in Beijing Airport. But a natural product is denied to the citizenry because we believe in selling away our patrimony. Why? This lack of patriotism. Should Trinis not be proud of their nation?

    TnT would have been better without the PNM. They sold oil from south and fix north whilst depriving the southerners of basic amenities. The balisier juice drinkers felt no impulse to build the nation, only to build where their voters lived. This is a crime that demands that the current Minister of Finance be sent to jail since Port of Spain receives an enormous amount of tax dollars whilst other Corporations received considerable cut in expenditure money. But not a dog dares to bark at this injustice! However, God don’t sleep.

  4. Mamoo. We have news for you. The reason why we voted the PP in 2010 is to change the situation you are writing about.. What did we get from that government? Grand giveaways, gross stealing by certain individuals, free for all schemes etc. We were totally disappointed by the gross misconduct of certain ministers of government. The UNC created too many demigods, Ali Babas, arrogance etc. This was the reason why we voted the PP into government. If the Prime Minister had ensured that we did not get the same type of governance like the PNM she would be in government today. Why did the UNC/PP not correct these wrongs when they were in power. The poor people of this country are waiting and praying for someone to take the government and do justice for the people.

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