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Raffique Shah


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Backward ever, forward never

By Raffique Shah
November 16, 2014

The land slippages and other failures that occurred on the newly-opened section of the Solomon Hochoy Highway might be a blessing in disguise if the Government could resist the temptation to play politics with the costliest public works project ever in the country. This is also no time for those who oppose the Debe to Mon Desir segment of the new highway to gloat over the defects, seeing them as "karma" or punishment for the Government for proceeding with construction even as protestor Wayne Kublalsingh remains at death’s door in his marathon hunger strike.

Reality is the 50-kilometre, $7.4 billion new highway extensions (well, there are two separate four-lane highways from the outskirts of San Fernando that converge in Mon Desir) are a huge cost to taxpayers, and citizens must demand value for money. This significant sum of money is not coming from the Prime Minister’s pockets, or any of her ministers’ bank accounts.

It is our money that they are spending on the project, so we’d do well to ensure that contractor, OAS of Brazil, delivers road surfaces, overpasses, embankments and so on that will last for 100 years or longer, that the new highway won’t fall apart soon after they pack up and return home.

That defects, however minor, show up so soon is cause for concern, but also timely. OAS will now have to remedy the failures to the satisfaction of engineers who are paid to secure the interests of the citizenry. More fortuitous, the experts can increase their vigilance on ongoing works, and check on the integrity of all that has been completed.

It is disturbing that a few days’ rains could have done the damage we saw. Nidco, the executing agency, said slippage on parts of the shoulder occurred because drainage works in that section were incomplete. Okay. But why would they open any part of the highway before important drainage is complete? Is that the Government, wanting to capitalise on their "project pride", threw caution to the wind and demanded to cut a ribbon and hold a party? Citizens can also ask if the shoulder slippage was caused by incomplete drainage, what caused the damage to the more elaborate Golconda interchange?

There is an even more pertinent follow-up issue. Thus far this year, we have experienced a substantially below average rainy season. One month ago, WASA complained that its dams’ levels were way below where they should be in October. While some districts have experienced heavier rainfall, most of the country remained relatively dry—until last week’s three-day wet spell. And even that was not the typical rainy season deluge.

Other than some flash floods in downtown Port of Spain and isolated districts in the east and south, there was nothing to signal a normal rainy season. Thus far for 2014, the Caribbean has had no tropical storms or hurricanes of note. In fact, many of the islands complain about drought.

If, therefore, in this dry wet season parts of the new highway collapsed, what would happen when weather patterns return to normal, when it rains heavily from June to December? Would we see widespread slippages, asphalt surfaces virtually disappearing?

These are frightening prospects, and all the more reason why the authorities must ensure that every square metre of work done by OAS is double and triple-checked while they are still here.

Works Minister Suruj Rambachan, in an attempt to explain the defects as being normal, pointed to landslips on the Hochoy Highway, particularly in the Claxton Bay district. In fact, a few days after he spoke, there was a significant slippage on the Forres Park flyover, caused in part by the rains. Director of Highways, Roger Ganesh, blamed the soil-type and size, presumably meaning weight, of trucks that frequent that area.

They are both correct—to some extent. Since that highway opened some 40 years ago, sections close to Claxton Bay have failed repeatedly. Major reconstruction and repaving works have been conducted at least ten times—and the surface is still not nearly perfect.

This begs the question: are there no engineering solutions to such challenges? I cannot believe that 100 years or more after major highways and freeways were constructed in developed countries, and have withstood the test of time, earth movements, ever larger vehicles and more traffic, that our engineers cannot design comparable roads.

The Churchill-Roosevelt Highway was hurriedly constructed by the Americans during the Second World War (sometime in 1943-1945). It was upgraded and dualled in the 1980s, and it is probably the most stable roadway in the country. The Maracas Road and Lady Young Road, built on difficult terrain many decades ago, continue to serve us well.

Seventy-plus years later, with all the modern technology available to them, today’s engineers and contractors cannot conquer soil challenges and cope with rain! Rain, for heaven’s sake!

European space scientists have successfully landed a working space craft on a hurtling comet 311 million miles away from earth. In Trinidad, a few days’ insignificant rain wreaks havoc across the country, damaging even a brand-new billion-dollar highway that is under construction.

We seem to be going backward ever, forward never. What a country.

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