Independent - March 21, 2001
By Raffique Shah
I commend Works Minister Carlos John, or whoever in the ministry came up with the master plan, for the manner in which the rehabilitation of the Solomon Hochoy Highway is being undertaken. The work, which began sometime in January, is proceeding at a reasonable pace, and from a cursory look at how the contractors are conducting the exercise, it seems that they are doing a good job. Moreover, the fact that most of the work is done during non-peak traffic-hours means that pile-ups are few, and in any event motorists are not stuck in traffic for long periods.
It is important that we note where ministers and ministries are doing good work just as we condemn those who are not performing or who are insensitive to citizens who are adversely affected by their negligence or arrogance. In last Sunday's Express, for example, I took Environment Minister Adesh Nanan to task for his "master plan" to site the national garbage dump at Forres Park. I trust that now that Couva South MP and Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj has been brought into the fray by irate residents who are his constituents, Nanan will be made to pay for his folly. As I argued, why should we in Central Trinidad play host to the garbage produced by the hundreds of thousands of people who live in north Trinidad? Worse, why site a dump four miles upwind of a fairly densely populated area?
But back to Carlos and the Hochoy Highway. The thousands of communters who are forced to use this main artery between north and south Trinidad on a daily basis were in pain when Lain, a Spanish (I believe) contracting firm was awarded the contract about three years ago. The then Minister of Works, Sadiq Baksh, had explained that because the funds for the works came in the form of a grant from the European Union, there was a caveat that an EU contractor be used for the job. Given what Lain did-or more appropriately, did not do-during the period it inconvenienced motorists for months, the firm should be re-christened "Lame"!
Those who do not have cause to use the Hochoy Highway will never understand the suffering commuters and motorists were subjected to-and for what? A strip of the highway that, upon being re-opened for public use, was so badly done, it made an MV Panorama ride through the Bocas a joyride. It was a case of bumps and humps and worse, the re-creation of the moon surface on a rehabilitated highway. Why Lain was not fired earlier, I do not know. And when the firm was fired, I wondered if it was going to reimburse Trinidad and Tobago for the shoddy work it did.
The current works, which encompass a lengthy strip of the highway from Freeport to San Fernando, have been farmed out to three contractors. That, for starters, was a good idea. Each contractor has a manageable portion of the highway to deal with, so he can concentrate all his resources there. It means that work is proceeding much faster than if one contractor was given the entire job. It also ensures that the contractors can pay more attention to what they are doing. So that parts of the old surface (including the "Bocas" left behind by Lain) are being scraped clean before any new asphalt mix is added. Presumably, this tedious exercise will give us a proper surface that will last for many years.
It seems, too, that the entire job will be completed before the onset of the rainy season. That is good news, since the worst time to attempt such extensive highway repairs is during the wet season. Of course, there are those who complain that the contractors do not have proper signage at the work sites, and that has led to a number of accidents, some of which were fatal. I use the highway regularly, and yes, it is true that sometimes their warning signs are not placed where they give adequate warning to motorists.
But except for "Sunday drivers", most people who use the highway know that repair work is underway at several points. They therefore ought to exercise caution, since one does not know where diversions are located. Of the two fatal accidents that occurred on the highway recently, it seemed clear that the drivers of the vehicles that caused them were practising for the "Indi 500". The female teacher who ran up the embankment, for example, when I saw the mangled car "parked" about 20 feet above road level (I passed that way about an hour after the crash), I wondered how it got there. Clearly, I thought, the driver must have been "drag racing".
Then last Friday, it took me about half-hour to drive past a one-mile strip where the contractor was paving, forcing motorists to use the shoulder. There was no way anyone could get into an accident there-or so I thought. I mean, we were driving at around five miles an hour! Yet, upon returning an hour or so later, I saw the pile-up of traffic and, upon reaching the scene, I saw a hearse (bad sign!), several police cars and other emergency vehicles. And there, with scores of people around it, was something that used to be a vehicle-I couldn't tell whether it used to be a truck or a car.
Later I learned that it was a van that was proceeding south (on the traffic-free lane), and it was going so fast, the driver lost control and ended up dead, in addition to which he maimed several other innocent persons in the process. People have begun referring to that section of the highway as a "death strip". The same tag has been given to another section near the Claxton Bay fly-over, and yet another near the Gasparillo exit. The truth be told, these "strips" are no more dangerous than any other road or highway in Trinidad. It's the motorists who are deadly.
It is a fact that the moment motorists see a piece of well-paved road, matters not if it's a highway or a street in a residential district, it's an invitation to them to "hit the gas". Somehow this seems to be a peculiarly Trinidadian trait. When the roads are in poor condition, they complain; but the moment the Government or local authority repairs them, they abuse the relief by "drag racing" on them. What stupid people we are! And by the way, where are the Licensing officers who are supposed to be pulling dangerous or derelict vehicles off the road? Is that piece of legislation still gathering dust in the Attorney General's office? Why do we still have all these "death traps" stalking our roads, especially at nights?
Anyway, I have strayed from my original theme, which was to say "nuff respect" to Carlos and his officers who are responsible for the rehabilitation of the Hochoy Highway. It looks good, it feels good (when you drive on the re-paved sections) and it is a credit to our local contractors. One note to Carlos: try and get a clause in the contracts that will give us some guarantee that the costly works will last. That highway is less than 30 years old. Besides the original contractors who built it back in 1970-72, sections of it have deteriorated so rapidly, one wonders whether we got value for money. It has been re-paved, or had more extensive works done in certain sections, on at least five occasions since it was built.
This time around we should ensure that the work is up to an acceptable standard. If at all we see the craters and bumps re-appearing in short time, then the contractors, who are undoubtedly making a "nice piece" off this job, must be held liable. We cannot continue throwing huge sums on the Hochoy Highway every two years or so. That is wholly unacceptable. None of the previous contractors were made to pay for their shoddy work. That must not happen again. If I know Carlos well, he'll see to it that we get value for money this time around-with warranties attached to the contracts.
Copyright © Raffique Shah