Govt’s handling of East Bank Rd and Linden Highway raises serious questions
From time to time the Government deems it necessary to inform the readers of newspapers such as the Stabroek News about progress on projects on which billions of dollars are being spent. I am sure that I am not alone in welcoming the Government’s recognition of the need for periodic provision of such information. The recent piece entitled ’East Bank and East Coast road expansion now set for year end completion’ featured on Tuesday 6th May in Stabroek News, caused several questions to come to mind.
What informs Govern-mental road building priorities? Most readers and certainly those from Berbice would have welcomed the announcement that the Government is planning to rehabilitate part of the East Bank Berbice Road linking New Amsterdam to Mara. Over the years the Government’s approach to the maintenance of this road has prompted many comments in and outside of the National Assembly because it reflects the worst aspects of PPP policy partisanship. From time to time, the road is patched and most of that time the work has been limited to the sections running through the few villages with East Indian communities and PPP supporters. So, a perfectly good road to Mara built with EU funds prior to 1992 has been left to deteriorate to unacceptable levels. Getting to hospital via this road is sometimes almost as dangerous as going without treatment. Frequently villagers resident along the road have reacted to this reprehensible behaviour by taking the law into their own hands and seized control of access, blocking traffic and disrupting traffic flows to the point where police have had to be called in.
The proposal announced by the Government is to have the design work completed by July and construction work begin in October. The completion date is not clear from the article.
The other question unaddressed is why the work is to stop at Light Town. The area between Light Town and Mara has good agricultural potential but has long suffered from the blight of poor road and infrequent and expensive river transport. Consequently, as the road deteriorated in 1991 and 1992 the IDB had agreed to fund the rehabilitation of the entire stretch. What lies behind this limited GOG proposal? The purpose of a road link in such an area is to serve as a feeder from farms and potential farms to New Amsterdam, Georgetown and international markets. Why stop at Light Town? Has land beyond Light Town been promised to ANSA McAl for a large plantation?
If this behaviour were limited to the EB Berbice it would be bad enough. It applies to the Linden highway, which along with the Corentyne road, is one of the best in terms of original specs (quality) in the country. Notwithstanding the fact that when the Government came to office there were funds available for the timely renovation of the road, the state of the road is today highly dangerous especially on the approaches to the bridges and during the rainy season.
The road has started to show signs of corrugation, like the roofs of our houses. It will cost significantly more to rehabilitate it than would have been the case if it had been dealt with earlier or properly maintained. Unlike the East Bank residents, Lindeners have not opted to block access to the highway in order to draw attention to their plight. And that is just as well because many PPP supporters operating in the goldfields and in the Rupununi depend on the road for their supplies and markets. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to bring sanity to prevail on the Government.
The second set of questions pertain to the management of the road building contracts. The East Bank road to the airport took an unbelievably long time to be upgraded and widened. It involved the need to redo sections more than once. More recently Minister Benn has been on record as complaining of the manipulation of prices, of shoddy work of contractors when they get contracts. Many believe that they are untouchable.
In last week’s article the Head of the Roads and Bridges Department of the ministry identified: inclement weather, material shortages, bad management, by contractors, and slow re-location of utilities as the main reasons for the work on the East Bank and East Coast road projects being more than 18 months late.
Contracts for the East Bank Four Lane Expansion were signed on October 3rd 2011 and the work was initially due to be completed in March 2013. The Manager acknowledged that at this stage none of the lots has had as much as 50% of the work completed. In the case of Lot 3 awarded to BK the completion is a mere 25%. Many people would have asked themselves what is holding up the completion of the approach road to Timehri which the official assured readers is almost finished. Apparently, it is stalled for failure to relocate the GT&T utilities. Notwithstanding the assurances of the officer that such delays do not add to the cost of the civil works, the project will cost more overall than it should because of what has to be poor planning and coordination. No explanation has been offered as to why this could have happened and what is being done to prevent a recurrence. Or, of how the contractors would have borne the additional costs associated with such long delays and the locking in of most of their equipment.
A similar story is obviously unfolding on the East Coast roads. Most of the contractors seem to be behind schedule and no information provided suggests that the administration is not partly to blame. We do not know if internal problems include inadequate mobilization advances, a sore point among some contractors. This matter should not be a moving feast. There should be clear and transparent criteria governing their determination.
Yet in looking forward, the Ministry’s plan seems to be to sanction some contractors. The basis for the sanction of two named contractors is not obvious. The Government has acquired a reputation of not dealing fairly with contractors. What would be welcome is an effort to sort out its own planning and coordination arrangements and failures as well as the adoption of fair criteria for sanctioning in a transparent manner those who fail to perform.