A site adjacent to the current bridge is the most workable solution for a new Demerara Bridge

Dear Editor,

I find it incumbent on me, as former Minister of Public Works, to join the discussion unfolding in the media with respect to the national goal of achieving an improved and efficient new Demerara Harbour Bridge. In so doing, I would like to remind ourselves of the issues under active consideration and staged implementation, for the gradual improvement for the crossing of the Demerara River near Georgetown.

The necessity for improvement has been driven by the significant annual increase in the numbers, sizes, and types of commuter, service and goods transport required in response to a growing economy over the years. For the Harbour Bridge itself, daily crossings had increased from some 14,000 to near 20,000, particularly at holiday and sporting and cultural event peaks. Near term projections in 2013 had indicated that with the then current trends the Demerara Harbour Bridge was maxed-out for efficient crossing of the river and that responses had to be undertaken to avoid it becoming a major bottleneck in the transport sector.

1) Improvements at the DHB resulted in better budgetary inputs on an annual basis for pontoons, moorings, approaches and deck replacement and re-surfacing.

The introduction of one-way traffic, at the timings of, and in the direction of peak flow was achieved providing for the most important intervention to date, to alleviate the congestion issue. Improvement in traffic management, with the major input being from the Guyana Police Force, has been achieved with some qualifications.

Improvements considered and pending include:

– Peak-hour ride sharing with peak toll payments on the western end for vehicles which do not meet the ride-sharing parameters

– Pre-paid electronic recognition and rapid access via dedicated toll gates

– Free large bus transfer at peaks over bridge from western end to eastern end with terminations at Houston and Providence

– Geometric improvements at eastern end to achieve continuous, seamless, unrestricted exit northwards from bridge to East Bank Highway, and similar westward access to bridge from the East Bank Highway

– Associated improvements related to the installation of pedestrian overpasses on the East Bank and the gradual reduction and eventual cessation of garbage and sand truck transits. Garbage to be disposed of in region of origin, thereby not going to Haags Bosch, and sand movement, down and across the river, by barge traffic

2) There have been improvements in the water taxi service related to improvements in safety, comfort, ambience and efficiency of the units owned and operated privately. A complete redesign of the standard boat was initiated by the production of a prototype by the Maritime Administration Department. The requirement for installed flotation spaces and the fitting of inner transoms, splashguards and sheds eliminated the safety and comfort issues. The all-round improvements in the level and quality of service, have resulted in a major increase in the confidence in and utilization of water taxis. This has cemented their place as a significant and a continuing viable adjunct to river crossing options for commuters, on foot or parking and riding, between the city and Vreed-en-Hoop. The introduction of after dusk services was implemented to 22:00 hours with the provision of suitable visibility and navigation lighting.

Improvements considered and pending include:

– The installation of floating docking and berthing systems at Stabroek and Vreed-en-Hoop Stellings to improve access and rapid turnaround, eliminating difficulties for commuters and system efficiency, on daily tidal variations and particularly at the spring tides.

– The search to establish new water taxi service landings was initiated to ease the length, time and cost to commute for persons wishing to cross immediately from areas on the West Bank of Demerara. Sites looked at were Diamond/Grove, Providence/Mocha, La Grange and Wales.

3) Consideration was actively given to the reintroduction of the THD Demerara ferry service plying Stabroek to Vreed-en-Hoop as the next medium term intervention for vehicular traffic as a congestion ease or back up to the DHB issues. In furtherance of this a visit was made to the United States of America to examine for possible purchase the MV Twin Capes, owned by, and on offer from, the Delaware River and Bay Authority.

This vessel had the capacity to take 895 passengers and 100 cars, or their equivalent, in a comfortable roll-off roll-on mode for rapid transit operations. A modest utilisation of ten round trips per day at peak hours would have largely eliminated the peak congestion at the DHB. Unfortunately this initiative fell afoul of the cutting and pasting of funds engendered by parliamentary budget cuts and went into abeyance with the coming of the 2015 elections.

The rehabilitation and upgrade to the Stabroek and Vreed-en-Hoop Stellings were a necessary part of this idea.

4) Former President Jagdeo initiated the renewed effort to resolve the issue of a DHB replacement to provide for the national infrastructural responses necessary for continued growth and development. The government and the ministry’s response were clarified in National Transport Sector Policy documents.

In 2013, the Ministry of Public Works initiated a prefeasibility study for a new Demerara River Bridge. This study was under taken by Dr Raymond Charles, a University of the West Indies Professor in Transport Studies, as consultant along with the Central Transport Planning Unit of the ministry. Much data and other information were provided by the Ministry of Public Works’ Works Services Group’s sections, the Demerara Harbour Bridge Corporation and the MARAD, amongst others. The study was required to determine the options for bridge crossing of the Demerara River with a view to improve both surface land and marine traffic efficiencies going well into the future.

Three sites were examined during this study, these were: Peter’s Hall/Meer Zorgen (the current Peter’s Hall DHB site); Houston/Versailles; and New Hope/Laurentia Catherina. For the Peter’s Hall site two options were considered, one being continued operation, rehabilitation and maintenance of the DHB in its present form, and the other option being the construction of a new floating, four lane bridge adjacent to the current bridge. For both the Houston and New Hope sites the establishment of a new four lane fixed bridge structure was considered.

Houston/Versailles was identified in the study as being the most feasible site at a capital cost of some US$260 million. The study recommended the pursuance of a detailed feasibility study “…to incorporate exogenous costs and benefits, as well as a financial analysis to address the concerns of project financing and environmental impacts. Issues related to the land acquisition costs for integration of the bridge with the road network and the amount of work needed to achieve this integration, as additional expenses were immediately apparent. The next step of undertaking geotechnical studies was not accepted at cabinet, nor pursued in any form. The principal reason was the high cost and burden to the treasury and income flows for such an undertaking.

A subsequent international Request for Proposals, via NICIL, for a BOOT arrangement presented additional issues with much higher required tolls, among other requests, which were not sustainable. The experience of Suriname, which built a number of high level bridges, and Trinidad, where  significant infrastructural investments have been made in roads and bridges, suggested that a more cautious approach, based on financial sustainability and commensurability had to be undertaken. And we are aware that of the two referenced countries, Trinidad has an oil and gas economy, and the other has petroleum as a significant part of its economy.

It is, therefore, grossly incorrect to say that the “PPP administration supported location for new Demerara River Bridge … as a page 7 headline as an assertion attributed to Minister of Public Infrastructure David Patterson. The prefeasibility study was discounted on the bases of the reasons I adduced above at cabinet and in meetings with President Ramotar and then Minister of Finance, Dr Ashni Singh.  And one should note that findings of ground and other conditions, which are non-conforming, have the potential to completely discredit and allow for the discard of previously held assumptions on the completion of a detailed feasibility study. The fact of the non-pursuance of the project, as proposed in the prefeasibility study, is proof enough of its non-acceptance by the then PPP/C administration.

The position of the ministry then devolved to seeking to consider the building of a new, and improved, floating bridge along the model of the successfully completed Berbice Bridge, but with three lanes, adjacent to the current one. A fast drawbridge-type opening for river traffic was suggested.  Cost savings would have been inherent in design type chosen, utilization of the current park plazas at both ends of the structure, a much reduced requirement for acquiring land (upgrade of northern access roads to merge with the East Bank highway would be required). The DHB team was required to explore and visit bridge sites in Florida, with respect to the drawbridge designs, and Washington State, where a new floating bridge was being completed across the Puget Sound to take care of increased traffic volumes across older floating type bridges in that area.

The development of housing areas on the East Bank Demerara, even past the major community of Grove/Diamond indicates that increasing suburbs, south of Georgetown, and on the West Bank and West Coast of Demerara indicate that all the needs for primary infrastructure projects are not necessarily related to Georgetown. The study initiated for the Ogle/Grove Bypass road project, to be completed as a result of funding precipitated by former President Ramotar with the Government of India underscores the issue of the avoidance of transferring congestion nodes closer to Georgetown.

Other than issues related to the availability of economic, social, foundation, environmental and other impact studies, the overall question of the resulting fiscal space and development footprint for available funding, both at the governmental and private sector levels, have to be considered. And comparisons for conclusive modelling to determine the best option from a number of alternatives has to utilize comparisons of like things; the comparison matrix ought to consider similar structure models across the range of sites for a true understanding of the choices on offer.

Given the absence of more detailed information, and a better understanding of total costs related to best uses of funding, my considered opinion remains with a site adjacent to the current bridge location as the most workable solution.

Any final preferred solution will present the opportunity of removal of the current bridge to Kurupukari, for the Essequibo River, crossing with the benefit of converting the Linden/Lethem road to a 24 hour transit from its current 10 hour daylight status, thus improving trade with the Brazil north-east and synergizing agricultural and other developments in the Rupununi. Engineer Joseph Holder, who has given sterling service and advice in the erection, and operation and maintenance of the DHB has been convincing by advocating that a floating bridge can last as long as it is properly maintained and its elements are replaced, as necessary.

We owe the Chairmen and directors and the management and staff of the DHB, along with national engineering service providers, a significant debt of gratitude for their contributions in keeping the facility going over the many interesting, and sometimes testing years past.

Yours faithfully,

Robeson Benn

Former Minister of Works

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