Getting the MRT to work

By P. Gunasegaram, Managing Editor of The Star

At a total cost of as much as RM50bil, we must get this right or pay very dearly

FOR the construction sector and some companies, Christmas time has well and truly begun with the firm and unequivocal decision by the Government to go ahead with the works for the estimated RM36bil mass rapid transit or MRT project for Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas.

That does not include the cost of rolling stock, or trains for us laymen and laywomen, and the cost of acquisition of land. Including that, the cost could well balloon to over RM50bil by some estimates, making it more expensive to build than the entire Putrajaya and the KL International Airport put together.

Putrajaya is widely reported to have cost RM20bil and the airport RM10bil at the time of completion more than 10 years ago. That makes a grand total of RM30bil. At RM50bil, the MRT costs two thirds more! That’s a stupendous amount of money, especially for a relatively small country like Malaysia.

It’s no longer relevant or useful to talk about whether the MRT is necessary because the decision is already made to go ahead with it. But there is a lot to be said about how to make it a truly effective one.

In our haste to push ahead with big projects, we often overlook many things. Planners think they know or have taken into account everything. But they seldom have. Already another consultant other than the original promoter has come up with a way to cut costs by combining parts of two lines.

Give it some time and for others to study the plan and there are likely to be more improvements. The plan should therefore be publicly tabled, and comments and suggestions invited. Based on that, the plan should be revised if necessary.

It is good that most of the parcels will be by open tender. That usually helps to keep costs low by ensuring that there are sufficient competing bids. However, it would have been better to do away with the Swiss challenge system for the original promoters of the MRT, MMC-Gamuda Joint Venture Sdn Bhd.

Under such a system, if there is a competing bid for the tunnelling works – at an estimated RM13bil-RM14bil for the largest portion of the works – the JV has the right to match a competing lower bid or to remove itself from the bidding process. That does not give a competitor the incentive to come up with a lower bid because he will not get if it is still competitive and viable.

It is better that the MMC-Gamuda Joint Venture be retained as the project delivery partner for the entire project and open tenders be had for all parcels of the project to demonstrate an unwavering adherence to keeping costs as low as possible.

It is good that the rest of the parcels will be by open tender and that there will be independent experts to ensure that quality and other standards are met. That is as things should be.

By the time the MRT is in operation, it will be several years down the line. It is imperative in the meantime that all measures continue to be taken to ease congestion in the city. Such measures have been far and few in between and many of them have been abject failures.

For instance, even more people will use the light rail transit (LRT) system if the feeder services are good enough. What’s the point if the LRT saves you half an hour when you have to wait for half an hour for the feeder bus to come and take you home?

That’s a very important lesson to carry forward into the MRT system. You can have the best and most expensive system in the world but unless you have the necessary reach and efficient feeder services, it is bound to be a failure.

When to this day, more than 10 years after the LRT services were introduced, feeder services are woefully inadequate, what makes us think that they will be efficient when the MRT is completed in stages over the next five to 10 years?

Let’s look at the other huge infrastructure project – the largest single one before the MRT. This is the RM16bil (which will probably balloon to over RM20bil) nationwide double-tracking project. Where are all the benefits that are supposed to accrue from that?

Let’s make sure the MRT does not suffer the same fate.