City decongestion plans in the making-Minister Benn By Christopher Yaw
Stabroek News
November 26, 2006

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The Ministry of Public Works and Communication is looking at ways of decongesting the city and developing bus parks and other strategic infrastructure would be part of the solution, Minister Robeson Benn has said.

Noting that Georgetown has become very congested over the years and that this has proved to be stressful for the everyday commuter, Benn told Stabroek News in an interview that there were extensive plans in the making to transform the dire situation.

"I have been spending a lot of time on that recently‚€¦," he said, conceding that several plans made over the years have not gotten off the ground. "We are looking at how we can decongest the city; at questions of where land can be acquired; what is the best element of transport? whether minibus, maxi bus, a very large bus, maybe on one-year licensing arrangements to the government - we [would arrange it] in such a way that there is a [minimization] of stress.

"We're looking at areas where bus stands or parks could be established we have already identified areas by GPS [Global Positioning System] and are putting these into a GIS [Geographic Information System] for the bus stops. We're looking at fine-tuning where sand trucks could be; and where trucks carrying other commodities could be waiting for supplies. They do not necessarily all have to be at the market area, they can be moved to a point where they can be reached by telephone."

Ministry personnel, the minister said, have been in the fields taking snapshots and talking to people in addition to meeting transport sector players to discuss these plans. "We've been out there taking pictures, talking to people. We've had an initial meeting with a number of people who are interested in the transport sector, some of the minibus owners/operators.

We will meet with them again according to our plans for consultation. We don't want to move without consultation but certainly the situation is extremely bad and unsafe for the travelling public, generally. It engenders lawlessness and encourages criminal behaviour too.

"So we need to do a lot of work to come up to the regional standards of transportation provision. I do not think we are anywhere close to the standards being promoted in Trinidad and Barbados. Certainly these operations would have to move to a point where there has to be a first-in, first-out operation. The question of persons walking across the road in the traffic to board buses‚€¦ all these things are being looked at."

Still in the transport sector Minister Benn congratulated the staff who manage operations at the Demerara Harbour Bridge (DHB). Though the bridge may be past its normal engineering design time span the management of the harbour bridge has been working hard under the direction of its board. "I think they've done quite a good job with respect to maintenance over the years in spite of some constraints. There are plans to continue replacing pontoons.

"When I came on there were two new pontoons constructed by a local construction firm Courtney Benn and there are quite a few that need to be replaced over the next year or two to bring it [the bridge] to continued sustained use."

The minister expressed the hope that government could garner enough taxes, "I hope VAT helps in this regard then we'll get money to have all of the things we desire [in terms of infrastructure] from our wish list."

Ferry service

Benn told Stabroek News his ministry was actively working to improve the ferry service and in terms of the infrastructure for the Transport and Harbours Department (T&HD) and the services it provides to the travelling public.

The minister conceded that this department in particular, "needs a lot of improvement." The ministry is therefore looking at how the funds could be acquired for such a drive as right now the T&HD is in deficit and has been running on a deficit amounting to several hundred million dollars for a number of years.

With respect to the overall improvement of the ferry service, Benn said they are working on the facilities such as the Parika terminal which has been improved with a new passenger waiting area and ticketing offices.

There is the intention for the Parika and Essequibo route to have roll-on/roll-off ferry facilities and this will come through an arrangement with the Chinese government.

The deal with the Chinese, Benn said, is part grant but has not yet been finalized. "We're working on it but certainly we would have an arrangement with them."

It is possible that by the end of 2008 new ferries would be in Guyana.

The Berbice River bridge, the minister said, would "come into play by 2008" and assist with the ferry activity.

Benn said it was critical now however to improve accommodation, facilities and working conditions to elevate the safety and efficiency with which the department operates.

A transport sector report done last year had noted a need for the T&HD to become more autonomous managerially and economically.

The minister said the agency could be, "financially independent it's just that it needs a lot of support and needs to be in a position where its maintenance practices, logistical arrangements, training of employees, its overall provision of services to the public are not running in a deficit which has been the position for a number of years."

With regard to the internal workings of the T&HD, the minister said: "We're actively looking at the figures of T&HD. Up to yesterday we had a meeting with the management reviewing figures and parameters which I requested.

There are some modifications being done and we also met with the union; the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union."

Road network

The road network has been deemed somewhat satisfactory by one of the more recent transport sector reports and the minister said maintenance was the area they were focusing on at this time. "There is a maintenance plan with respect to the roads and it is being effected. Generally we are seeing ways of improving it. It's now on a computerized system [which] we are trying to expand [for use] throughout the ministry‚€¦"

The overall issue of maintenance in the ministry was sited as significant by Benn who acknowledged the need to move away from breakdown maintenance to planned maintenance, "in terms of circulars, in terms of having materials on hand with respect to responding to issues.

"We need to develop those systems more as a practice and to bring in more technical persons and to have training continue and develop a rigorous maintenance programme throughout all our operations."

Road maintenance along with work at the Harbour Bridge, he said, were highpoints in the ministry's programme. "I think the roads are not doing a bad job though they may be behind in terms of work to be done, even while new roads are being built; the four-lane highway and the harbour bridge are doing a fair job given the resources."

Soils

But he stressed that these things needed revenue. "We have to understand that where we have our livelihood on the coast the soils are very fertile, but we are constructing on very soft sediments. Soft muddy coastal sediment, so we have problems of subsidence; we have problems of being under sea level; we have problems of embankments not being able to stand if they are not beyond a certain height or profile. That is a significant challenge we have with regard to infrastructure construction. We may build a road and afterward there is movement because of subsidence or failure - it doesn't stand."

He suggested that if Guyana's population was located in mountainous areas with hard rocks maybe the cost would not have been so high. But this is part of the trade-off cost Guyanese have with respect to living on the coast.

However, he saw room for improvement in other areas, "I think we need to have improvement in terms of how the T&HD is doing and on the sea defences. We are working hard on that at the moment in fact we're trying to bring it to a computerized environment and bring in planners who can deal with issues with regard to scheduling maintenance and saving the maintenance dollar.

"We want to optimize to get the best out of the money we spend. So I don't want to take figures and throw them out there when they can be changed."

Commenting on the Ministry's work leading up to the Cricket World Cup 2007 in Guyana, Benn noted they "have been working to improve the safety of travelling on roads. There are situations where people built encroachments and (deposited) encumbrances including sand and gravel on the road. [There are] old vehicles on the side of the road. It looks bad for one and presents a great risk to public safety if we construct new highways as we are doing now. They have to be at an international standard which we intend to maintain if we are going to have a reduction of overall road accidents.

"We have been trying to remove these [encumbrances] from the side of the road both on the East Bank and the coast. We have had significant effort by people to move off the road and this is more for sea defence reserves there are still a few holdouts and we are planning to go down both routes to more recalcitrant people with that equipment. We don't want to be unnecessarily aggressive or have situations where people are required to move and we intend to look at laws with respect to this."

There was also the situation with people offloading building material on the road. He said that two weeks ago his team came upon an accident where a motorcyclist ran up against a truck that had just dropped a load of sand on the road.

"We had to hurry and get him to the hospital from the West Coast Demerara. We have many preventable accidents happening on the road. We've seen situations where pedestrians, children and bicyclists are accident victims. We need Guyanese to pay more attention to how they operate on the roads and how they should and I want to appeal to all persons to remove encumbrances from the road to drive cautiously and avoid other people travelling on the road. [People should] leave earlier for work or whatever activity they are going off to, so they have a bit more time to get where they are going in a safer manner; to arrive alive."

Drainage

The minister noted that there are a few areas in the city also where people have built shacks/houses on the reserves. "Certainly these are homes for people and while they may be a personal fulfilment for that individual it presents a greater public risk because we cannot clean the drains. If we were to have a recurring situation like we had in 2005 and we are unable to quickly get the water off‚€¦

We have to work with local government, the city and the housing ministry to see how these people can be relocated so we can move away from the situation where there are houses on reserves and drainage machinery has no access."

He said the ministry has received a report from Guysuco on all of its reserves, canals, dams, embankments countrywide. A number of these reserve areas are encumbered, he said and there is no way of moving equipment along to have a free flow of water. "So that when you want to move water you are constrained‚€¦ we have to work with agencies and persons to find ways to provide relief in the interest of public safety," he said. "We want it to happen as quickly as possible. But we are aware of the sociological constraints. We would like it to happen before the December rains but that is an impossibility; so we are working at it.

Brazil road

Asked about the differences of opinion over the road to Brazil, the minister said such a road exists in a certain form, but it requires some maintenance. "There is a road. The question is whether it could be asphalted all the way from Linden to Lethem and as I said myself in Parliament, I travelled on the road from Bon Fim to Manaus in the early 70s and it was similar to the road we have now."

He calculated therefore that it would have taken the Brazilians over 30 years to bring the road from a laterite road to an asphalted road and "if we were attempting to do this now it would take all our GDP in Guyana‚€¦The traffic volumes going there are too low to support such a development and we don't have the bridge as yet."

He alluded to the fact that feasibility studies relating to social and economic issues have to be done to determine the effects of such a road. In addition to the normal engineering, significant sums would have to be spent to carry these out and, "at the end of the day you don't want a white elephant or whatever colour elephant."

The road, he suggested, should be developed to the point where it is taking enough stuff from the northeast of Brazil and taking enough stuff from Guyana and the Caribbean into that area so that it is useful or extremely significant.

The minister also recalled at this point that an agreement had been signed for a feasibility study in the order of US$600,000. He followed this up by noting that road construction and design of a proper laterite road could cost about US$1,000 a mile, while each mile with an asphalt surface would cost much, much more. "The sums involved are not inconsiderable."

Prominent engineers have referred to the usefulness of bridging the Essequibo at Kurupukari where the natural setting could contribute to the construction of a bridge. Realistically, Benn said, "at some time a bridge can be constructed over the Essequibo River, but all these things have to come together in a holistic and synergistic plan‚€¦ which also has to be integrated with the water transport developments.

"These things cannot happen overnight they have to be carefully studied and developed. We hope that when we start drilling in the first quarter next year for oil - Ground Star Resources is expected to start drilling - if we have a significant discovery to support a pipeline to the coast and Linden this would all form a part of things we need but things have to be built on each other.