THERE has been constant reference to the current government’s promise of making tolled roads in Klang Valley toll-free. The government has also been engaged in discussions to sell off the nation’s first tolled highway, PLUS, to private investors, but the plan was aborted. Instead, the government has negotiated with the owners of PLUS to reduce the toll rate by 18% with the concession being extended for another 20 years till 2058.
While the public are relieved that the new deal promises lower toll rates till the end of the concession, the 20-year extension has raised some questions.
At a time when the economy is not doing that well, the scaling down of toll rates is a welcome respite as it would leave people with a little extra money to spend. Most people would tell you that the economy is not in the best of shape.
During a recent trip back home to Kelantan, I could not help but notice that businesses there are not doing that well. I went to the iconic Siti Khadijah market in Kota Baru at around 5pm to buy the usual Kelantan fare. When I arrived, I saw that most of the stall owners were already preparing to close for the day. Normally, they would close at 7pm or 8pm. They were closing early because of poor business.
One thing is for sure, however. The lower toll rates would encourage more people to drive. Is this what we really need? In the Klang Valley, despite the building of more roads, congestion is not getting any better.
Every morning as we approach Kuala Lumpur from Kajang along the Cheras highway, the traffic bottleneck is getting worse. If tolls on the roads in Kuala Lumpur are removed, the traffic woes would get even worse. So, instead of removing the toll, use the money earned to improve the city’s rail transport service.
The government has stated many times that building and improving the public transport system is a better option for the economy. Improving the last mile is still the challenge we need to work on.
Cities in countries like Germany are all well served by an efficient network of rail, trams and buses in the public transport system. In Malaysia, we have started well with the LRT, MRT and Rapid KL buses. But we need to continue to expand and improve, instead of reducing toll rates to encourage the use of more cars.
In Munich, for example, cars are mostly used for long distance out-of-town travelling. Within the city, travelling is done mostly via public transport. The ticketing system in Munich is also very user-friendly, further adding to the convenience. Even CEOs of big companies mostly take the train to work. It is no wonder then that traffic jams in Munich are rare.
Furthermore, Kuala Lumpur has declared its intention to become a low carbon smart city. Having more cars on the roads is certainly not the way to achieve this ambition. Improving the public transport system is the answer.
Even the way cars are fuelled is changing. Big car companies are already preparing for the day when electric cars will rule the roads. Those that fail to follow the trend will one day realise that they can no longer be in business.
Of course, electricity to power these vehicles must come from climate-friendly sources. Despite the efforts by some to shore up the fossil fuel industry, many predict their time is running out. This explains why oil-dependent countries are now diversifying.
As a country that has pledged to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, improving rail transport is definitely the way forward rather than abolishing tolls, which would encourage people to use their cars.
PROFESSOR DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia
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