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Congestion strangling TT

By ROXANNE STAPLETON Thursday, July 26 2007

AS GOVERNMENT prepares to deliver the 2007/2008 Budget in Parliament within the next two months, it must ensure that the nation’s infrastructural problems are high on its agenda and addressed in a substantive manner as Trinidad and Tobago strives to achieve developed nation status on or before 2020.

This is the view of prominent local economist and University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus lecturer Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir. In an interview with Business Day, Dr Mahabir, who has developed a track record over the years of critically analysing the country’s economic development, said he is firm in his view how any government deals with developing of the nation’s infrastructure is one of the key measurements by which the public judges the success of its leadership.

Minister in the Ministry of Finance Conrad Enill hinted that Government is aiming to present the Budget in Parliament. Apart from any election goodies which the upcoming Budget is expected to contain, Enill also hinted that the 2007/2008 fiscal package will continue to see a focus on education, health, housing, national security and infrastructure.

Judging from mass public opinion, congestion is one of the biggest problems facing the country. This is evident by the many productive man-hours lost by citizens who find themselves trapped in what has now become the daily ritual of traffic gridlock on virtually every major road in the country. While there is a plethora of construction projects taking place in the country today, the ordinary man in the street is wondering how many of these projects are actually helping him to commute more efficiently from one part of the country to another.

The current PNM government has spoken about several initiatives to ease this congestion from the implementation of a Rapid Rail Transit system to water taxis to highway upgrades. Given the length of time taken for many of these initiatives to impact positively on the infrastructural headaches faced by ordinary citizens, Mahabir said it is clear there is no instant antidote to inject into an apparent, already over-burdened national infrastructural system,

However Dr Mahabir opined that there are remedial measures which Government could apply in the short term while it works on longer term measures. He said the Government has to move with alacrity with respect to transportation projects, noting that some of the plans afoot are too slow with respect to completion.

“The (Uriah Butler-Churchill Roosevelt) Interchange, for the last five years is still incomplete. Government indicated in the last budget that it was going to extend the Churchill Roosevelt Highway all the way to Manzanilla. It has to do that if UTT (University of Trinidad and Tobago) is going to come on board soon in tandem with easier access for students,” Mahabir observed.

He further noted that while the Minister of Works and Transport has spoken repeatedly about plans to extend the Solomon Hochoy Highway from San Fernando to Princes Town, thereby opening up a major infrastructural artery to ease the burden of people who travel from South Trinidad to Port-of-Spain on a daily basis, the population is still waiting to exhale.



Again Mahabir states for the record, that we have not seen much by way of progress on this project. The economist added that the much vaunted water taxi fleet appeared to have suffered much the same fate as the national highway upgrade programme, being slow to get out of the blocks.

Government had initially promised that the water-taxis would be operational by July but that too appears to have been stalled in the background by logistical problems. It is now anybody’s guess as to whether the water taxis will come onstream before the end of the year.

Another measure taken by Government to ease the congestion created by the ever-increasing number of cars on the roads, has been to increase the size of the Public Transport Services Corporation’s (PTSC) fleet of buses. Mahabir said while this is a step in the right direction,

a greater number of buses will not make a dent in the congestion problems if there are no proper bus terminals at strategic locations throughout the country to assist with the proper in and out-flows of travellers.

“Our terminals are in need of dire repair and upgrades are essential at these locations to deal with the daily demands of a voracious travelling public,” Mahabir stated..



Turning to the controversial rapid rail system, which he suspects Government to be looking at more carefully, given the public uproar over the costly prospect, Mahabir said it has to first be looked at from the perspective of it being a victim of a planning bottleneck.

“The problem with budgeting in this country and it didn’t start with this Government, it started way back in the 1970s, is that we ceased to plan and we simply went on an annual basis doing things without the context of a proper long term plan, which resulted in a hop from one project to another disjointed project. “We need to get back into the planning mode and in the interim, there has to be intensified decentralisation. There is no good reason for everything to be placed in Port-of-Spain.

“The rest of the country must be viewed in the full context as prospective landscape for development. Central, Manzanilla must be tapped into.

What is the headquarters of the Ministry of Agriculture doing in Port-of- Spain, when clearly there is no agriculture there?”

“There are a number of systems and procedures that are throwbacks from the colonial era, which as a country, we have to look and see whether they are convenient to us.”



In this context, Mahabir said the only government-related office which should be located in the capital city is the Parliament (House of Representatives and the Senate).

Gravitating to Caricom, Mahabir stipulates that the relevance of the regional body for the rest of its member countries is more historic of than economic. However he notes that for TT, Caricom holds major economic significance as it provides a critical market for its goods and services.

“Our service sector – banking and insurance have moved into Caricom territories with zest, stamping their footprints. Manufacturing, which though it has declined, is also an important one for us and petroleum. The rest of the regional partners look to the US for much of their trade. Bahamas for instance, imports and exports very little within Caricom, with its trade most significant with the US.”

He notes that Bahamians are very concerned with opening their market to migration from the poorer countries such as Jamaica and Guyana and Haiti. “They are not too keen on the Single Economy, with the pending harmonisation of the currency. I also think there are still going to be some stumbling blocks with respect to the free movement of labour.”

In the Caricom context, Mahabir said TT has to know what its interests are, uppermost being to preserve the market space and joining the other members to reduce overall expenses, he says.

“Could we not have one Caricom Foreign Mission, going with one voice, minimising duplication there? Could we not have a Caricom Defence Force, hence sharing in the defence of Caricom and patrolling our waters? An arrangement for healthcare, education and so on. And we have a basis for education — the University of the West Indies being a great starting point example,” Mahabir concluded.

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