March 24, 2002
By Raffique Shah
I UNDERSTAND the plight of motorists who must drive to the city of Port of Spain on a daily basis, either to conduct business or to work. On occasion, I, too, have had to endure the horror of crawling into the city from South early on mornings. One encounters traffic backed up, sometimes as far as Charlieville, making the rest of the drive sheer torture. And on evenings, when one comes to a crawl at the lower end of the Beetham Highway, then you know you have an hour of sheer hell to get past the Churchill-Roosevelt/Butler intersection.
I imagine the same holds true for thousands who have to travel from the East into POS, although those who use PTSC buses or maxi-taxis have the escape of the Priority Bus Route. And if people from San Fernando or Sangre Grande believe their daily experiences were engineered by political design, pity residents from the West and even north of Port of Spain, who take almost as long to travel the short distances between Cumana or Maraval and downtown.
So many of these frustrated motorists, especially those from the East and South, clamour for government to build the overpass at the CR/Butler intersection. They believe that impressive structure, complete with John Humphrey's patented arch, is the solution to their woes. Let me warn them that although the overpass will ease their woes, it will not solve what is fast becoming a traffic crisis. If government does seek to develop creative solutions to the problem of a finite mileage of roadways serving an infinite number of vehicles, then today's road horrors will degenerate into tomorrow's nightmare.
Let me explain. Shortly after the UNC government came to power in 1996, Sadiq Baksh was made Minister of Works. He immediately turned four-lane highways into six lanes, thereby eliminating the emergency lanes, which was a danger that motorists were prepared to close their eyes to. This was done on the Beetham and Churchill-Roosevelt Highways. Other roads leading into the city were similarly widened at points-the Lady Young Road, Wrightson Road and even parts of the Western Main Road. Sadiq also put a "Bailey bridge" across the Caroni River to ease congestion on the Southern Main Road.
Before the exercise was completed, motorists from Central and South Trinidad sang loud praises to Sadiq. Commuters were boasting that for the first time ever, getting into and out of the capital city was a "breeze". Yet, less than five years later, they are crying foul again, accusing the PNM government of ignoring them by halting work on the overpass. What has changed in those few short years?
Firstly, Sadiq's changes were cosmetic at best, and downright dangerous in instances. The elimination of the emergency lanes on strategic highways was a fundamental flaw. The new "lanes" were so narrow, one had to drive extremely carefully to avoid accidents. But traffic management personnel have long identified the main problem. It is simply that we have too many vehicles heading to the capital on a daily basis, and with parking in POS extremely limited, once the vehicles get into the city there will be bottlenecks every which way. As traffic crawls around the city, with thousands seeking to fill a few hundred parking spaces, traffic will back up from as far as onto the Butler/CR overpass.
Let me pose another scenario to those who see Humphrey's arch as some kind of angel. So you leave the city heading home after work, and you manage to get past the four traffic lights that halt traffic on the six-lane CR Highway. You now zip across the overpass-to encounter what? More traffic lights just past Grand Bazaar! That monumental piece of stupidity, which started with the siting of that mall so close to a main intersection, will cause evening traffic to back up beyond the overpass. And for those heading east, bear in mind you have to get past another 10 or more traffic lights as you drive east on the CR Highway.
People also fail to understand that over the past six years, with foreign used vehicles flooding the country, we have added more than 100,000 vehicles to further clog the roads. If there are more vehicles being driven on the same roadways we have had for more than 20 years, traffic will build up, not only on approaches to the city, but elsewhere in the country. Every one-donkey village of yesterday is now a foreign-used haven, with traffic snarled in the middle of cane fields!
In all of this, the main problem has long been identified. But for reasons best known to the planners and politicians, no one has done anything about it. Almost all government ministries and offices are located in the city, so anyone who works there, or who has business to conduct at a ministry, needs to travel to Port of Spain. The principal business houses are headquartered in the city, even though many have moved to malls on its periphery. The port, which is no longer the most active in the country, is in the heart of downtown. The main sporting and cultural complexes are also in the city.
With every office or business of note located within the confines of a city that has no scope for expansion, we were always destined to reach the "critical mass". That's where we are at today, and desperate motorists, tired of steaming in their cars (or seeing the cars "steaming"), will grab at any straw-or arch. Humphrey's arch appears to be a way out, and they are howling out for it to be constructed. But, as I reasoned above, it will be an expensive non-solution to the problem.
What is required is for government to start the process of decentralisation. The Ministry of Agriculture, for example, could be re-located in Couva. The Ministry of Works-why not Arima or its environs? Deliberate moves should be made to upgrade the Point Lisas port, leaving a minimal about of shipping at Port of Spain. Businesses should be encouraged to move their main operations outside of the city: Ansa McAl already has a huge complex in Chaguanas, and I should think if new car dealers were to move into areas outside of the capital, they may attract more business than they do now.
People need to understand that solutions to problems as complex as traffic woes cannot be solved by "vaps", as Sadiq's misadventure has proved. Let us not cover festering sores with prohibitively expensive plaster, but rather look for long-term solutions to long-standing problems.
Copyright © Raffique Shah