MHA's bad highway policy and the political repercussion
EXCLUSIVE There are two categories of highways used by the Malaysian Highway Authority: expressway and highway. Expressways are defined as high-speed highways built under the JKR R6 rural highway standard, as dual carriageway with full access control, grade-separated interchanges and high design speed limit of 120 km/h, allowing the maximum speed limit of 110 km/h.
Whereas highways, on the other hand, complement the national network of expressways and federal roads and built under the JKR R5 rural highway standard, with relatively high design speed limit 100 km/h, allowing the maximum speed limit of 90 km/h.
Except for the terminology, the category is similar to UK Highway Agency’s Motorway (Expressway) and A Road (Highway).
Examples of expressways in Malaysia include North-South Expressway, NKVE, Shah Alam Expressway (KESAS) or Maju Expressway (MEX). Examples of highways include Federal Highway, Ampang Elevated Highway and KL-Karak Highway. (Note: For the purpose of this paper tolled highway refers to both expressway and highway.)
Essentially, expressway planning is not a straight forward job. There are a lot of established principles that need to be followed. And tolled expressway, whether open or closed toll types, adds another dimension to this complication.
That is why competent professionals in various fields have to be engaged and brought in to be involved in both planning and decision making. It is not something that should be left to politicians to plan and decide.
From the lane configuration and design speed, the basis for highway capacity needs to be carefully calculated. Thus, given an estimated or a properly surveyed traffic volume, it is possible to determine at what stage a highway will get clog up and that additional lane is needed. Nevertheless, it is quite straightforward to establish the cost of building the highway and given the toll rates, to calculate its revenue, thus its profits over the concession period.
In terms of highway planning, it makes a lot of economic sense to build a parallel expressway alongside an old congested road. Not only this will increase the much needed capacity, but it will also separate the local traffic from the through traffic, also referred to as inter-urban or inter town traffic. This is important as local traffic travel at slower speed whereas inter town traffic speed is generally higher.
The idea behind this planned separation is that local traffic can continue to use the old road and inter town traffic can use the expressway. This approach in traffic separation, resulted from the parallel highway concept, has also proven to reduce traffic accidents, a very serious issue in Malaysian roads and highways today.
A highway may also be designed with limited road and junction access so as to maintain its maximum allowable speed and capacity. Having restricted access to motorcycles and small engine vehicles, for instance, ensures that the highway is safe and can reduce accidents. This limited access factor is also behind the reason why highways should be alternative to parallel roads.
Highway accidents can easily be avoided if access by smaller vehicles and motorcycles are denied as commonly imposed by major highways in developed countries and now also adopted in Indonesia. By the same token, large and heavy vehicles must only use highways and should not be allowed to use smaller roads.
Despite having an important role in Malaysia’s highway infrastructure development and management, MHA, in this context, has been disappointing and seen as a weak authority. It has clearly failed to ensure that the interests of the Malaysian public, particularly the road and highway users, are sufficiently protected.
Road safety is also left much to be desired. Accident black spots continued unrepaired; and toll rates continue to rise rapidly.
Is it not the role and responsibilities of this authority that any highway, toll or otherwise, planned for the country, be studied properly and that it meets with all the set criteria including safety features? This includes providing the road users with a choice of two routes, one free road and one tolled, in any given area, location and scenario?
Why is it that the concept of parallel highway in relations to free road, a big factor in road safety, being applied selectively?
If MHA’s argument is centred on traffic volume as a deciding factor, then no highways will ever get built outside Kelang Valley. But then again traffic volume along Gua Musang-Kota Bharu is equally high whereas current volume does not exist between Kinrara and Damansara. So, it is rather puzzling that KIDEX gets the go ahead first.
With regards to the recently awarded expressway concessions announced by the government, the Malaysian public has not had any opportunity to know the details. For instance, what sets of criteria used by MHA in their planning and decision making process? Neither do we know about their evaluation method in preferring to go ahead with one highway as opposed to another.
MHA's mixed-up priorities
For instance, why KIDEX is being pushed as a priority project? Why suddenly there is a need to reactivate the West Coast Expressway (WCE) at the time when national growth strategy has shifted to other areas?
Why the same concession company selected again despite its failure to undertake the same project some years ago?
Arguably, why are these two expressways preferred over other growth areas?
For example, Kota Bharu - Gua Musang, an important trunk road that has been ignored for years despite its high usage. Or Kimanis - Kota Kinabalu - Kudat Highway, in Sabah, a state which badly in need of proper road infrastructure? Or Kuantan – Kuala Terengganu roads, that have seen many fatal accidents due to heavy traffic operating along an under capacity road networks.
If MHA’s argument is centred on traffic volume as a deciding factor, then no highways will ever get built outside Kelang Valley. But then again traffic volume along Gua Musang-Kota Bharu is equally high whereas current volume does not exist between Kinrara and Damansara.
So, it is rather puzzling that KIDEX gets the go ahead first. The traffic volume between Kimanis–KK-Kudat is also high and the current road capacity is reaching saturation point.
Why are they not considered? Where is the logic to use traffic volume as a prime factor in deciding which highway to build first?
If MHA’s reasoning is not traffic based but economic based, meaning that a highway will spur economic growth then is it not logical to build highways in areas that have been targeted by the Federal government as the next growth centres? Like Kota Bharu - Kuala Terengganu, for instance, touted as East Coast Economic Corridor (ECER), and again Kimanis–KK-Kudat, conceived as Sabah new development corridor.
KIDEX and WCE (Taiping-Banting) highways are not cheap to build. It will cost the government RM2.2 billion and RM7 billion respectively. How did the government decide that these two locations should receive the development priority and be paid for by public funds as opposed to areas like East Coast and Sabah? These two areas and scores of others, need development too so that it can progress to the same level as Kelang Valley.
Why the obvious discrimination? Is it because Kelantan is controlled by PAS and that Sabah votes are safe and secured?
Equally surprising is the fact that ECER and SCORE are actually the two leading oil and gas producing regions that bring huge revenue to the Federal coffers. And yet they do not get what they deserved in terms of development priorities. Is this fair for a balance development strategy for Malaysia?
How long the undeveloped regions of the country must continue to suffer simply because the cronies of the government focus on areas where they can make a fast and profitable return on their highway investments.
No doubt this tolled expressway issue is in every road users’ mind every time they drive up the toll booth irrespective of where the users are from. The fact that the government is using the public funds so freely to support their highway cronies at the expense of the road users is most disheartening.
At the same time road users still have to dip into their pockets to pay toll and continue with paying road tax. This is certainly a bad policy. A policy that may take its toll on the present government, come the next general election.
* Dr Rosli Khan obtained his PhD in Transport Economics from Cranfield University, UK. He has been a practising consultant/company director in the last 25 years, being involved primarily in infrastructure development and economic policies.