Saturday, January 20, 2007

Causeway Blues

Maybe, it's a good time for the two governments to sit down and discuss ways to help improve the massive flow of people and goods between Malaysia and Singapore via the two bridges linking the two countries.

The current situation has not been ideal, as reflected in the front page article in Singapore's Business Times today.

Possible long-term solutions:

1. To build a wider bridge to replace the ageing Causeway. Allowance must be made on the new bridge for additional infrastructure such as high-speed rail tracks and monorail tracks. Please see earlier postings for context.

2. The toll rate at the two bridges must be reviewed:

a) It's entirely unclear why one must pay toll to use the old causeway that was built by the British in the 1920s. They have the right to collect toll if they can provide a good service, which means seamless travel between Johor Baru and Singapore. Instead, motorists have to bear with constant traffic jam at the causeway that is even worse than Bangkok's infamous traffic woes.

b) In the case of the Second Link, it's also unclear why motorists have to pay toll to use the bridge, which was jointly built by United Engineers Malaysia and the Singapore government. Although it was a half privatised project in the mid-1990s, UEM's parent Renong was awarded a large tract of land at Nusajaya near the Second Link in return for the construction of half of the second bridge linking Malaysia and Singapore.

It's also debatable as to why the Singapore government should collect toll on its end of the Second Link although it was implemented on the principle of matching the Malaysian toll. Why was there a need to match it? The Singapore government had used the money of taxpayers to build the bridge jointly with Malaysia's UEM. At the same time, there are many other direct and indirect taxes on motorists in the Republic -- COE, ERP, road tax and GST.

While the two governments sort out the latest move to divert lorries to the Second Link for about one year starting Sept 1, motorists will continue to bear with the inconvenience and the high price of using the two public arteries.

It doesn't sound quite right.

Detour will hike cost of M'sian goods: business

MALAYSIA'S move to divert heavy vehicles to the Second Link from the Causeway for about one year, starting Sept 1, could push up the cost of many essential goods entering Singapore, according to freight forwarders and other businessmen.

The temporary diversion of heavy vehicle traffic is aimed at easing the traffic gridlock to facilitate roadworks at the almost-completed new Customs, Immigration and Quarantine complex (CIQ) in Johor Baru.

But the move will push up business costs on both sides of the Causeway as the toll rate on the Second Link is substantially higher.

'They are shoving it down our throats but we cannot be subsidising, so we have decided to bill back to the customers,' Er Sui See, president of Pan Malaysian Lorry Owners Association (PMLOA), which has 10,000 members, told BT yesterday.

Operators of semi-trailers using the Second Link would have to stump out a total of as much as RM160 (S$70) return using two tolled highways plus the Second Link bridge connecting Tuas in Singapore and Gelang Patah in Johor state.

In contrast, the cost of using the Causeway in Johor Baru is up to RM22 for a two-way trip.

This represents a hike of over 600 per cent, before taking into account the Malaysian government's proposed rebates to truckers for the higher toll at the Malaysian end. The value of these rebates has not been disclosed.

Malaysian lorries ferry a substantial portion of Singapore's food needs on a daily basis.

An estimated 45 per cent of Singapore's supply of vegetables, 40 per cent of fish and 35 per cent of imported chickens come from Malaysia.

The bulk of the Malaysian supply of some 300 tonnes of vegetables daily is transported by lorries via the Causeway. Lorries carrying general goods are not likely to be entitled to the rebate.

Freight forwarders and transport companies were quick to say they will pass on the higher toll charges to end-users as well as the cost of covering the additional distance of some 30km each way from the Causeway to the Second Link.

'Definitely, the costs would be higher for goods imported and exported,' Federation of Malaysian Freight Forwarders (FMFF) secretary-general May Yee told BT.

Both bodies said they had not been consulted on the diversion or informed of the proposed rebate.

On Thursday, Malaysian Works Minister Samy Vellu said lorries providing logistics services between Johor Baru and Singapore would be given a toll rebate for using the Second Link but operators would have to apply for a special identification card to be entitled to the rebate.

He said the government would reimburse the rebate amount to the Second Link concessionaire.

The level of the rebate is currently being worked out but Ms Yee said a previous proposal last year by FMFF for a 50 per cent rebate had been rejected.

Mr Er pointed out that last year's special fleet card rebates for subsidised fuel for transport operators when diesel prices were raised would have involved such onerous paperwork that his fellow lorry owners instead decided to pass on the increased costs.

Singapore's Transport Minister Raymond Lim had earlier said that 'any diversion of traffic from the Causeway to the Second Link will have material implications for Singapore'.

Malaysia is completing a new road to link the CIQ to the Causeway, following the abandoned plans to build a new bridge to replace the Causeway, which was built in the 1920s.

The FMFF said 2,500 lorries use the Causeway each day, with only 900 taking the Second Link, despite Malaysia's attempts in the past to get more heavy vehicles to use it. Vehicles carrying hazardous goods are already required to use the Second Link.

The Malaysian Works Ministry told BT yesterday buses would not be affected by the diversion.

It is unclear how much freight movement is transacted daily between both countries, but estimates by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap) in the mid-90s of trans-border trade volumes was 15-20 million tonnes annually, mostly across the Causeway and the Second Link.

With additional reporting by Janice Heng

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