The right highway approach
The Highway Reroute Movement has been battling with the Trinidad government for ten years now. There have been significant blows on either side.
For example, in 2013, the Highway Reroute Movement applied to the court for an injunction to stop works on the Debe-Mon Desir Highway.
The court denied this application.
However, the main matter is still before the court; the court is yet to decide on the constitutionality of the state’s action on Debe-Mon Desir. This constitutional matter began in court on August 3, 2012 –– over three years ago.
But now that the smoke has cleared a bit, in this fight to the finish, let us see who is dead and who might be
First, the government has failed to expedite (or hustle) work on the ground. Remember, we are dealing with the Debe-Mon Desir Highway, not the Point Fortin-San Fernando Highway, which the Highway Reroute Movement fully supports. There is no interchange at Penal, none at Siparia, none at Fyzabad and none at Mon Desir; and no highway in between. At Mon Desir mostly drainage works for the Point Fortin-San Fernando Highway, some preliminary works and some on-site land clearance are being done.
Second, the government has failed to expedite works between the Debe interchange and Penal. It had tried its best to complete a highway here before elections. But it failed. The half-mile roadway completed could easily be converted to a connector road to bypass the busy traffic on the SS Erin Main Road.
Third, OAS, the main contractor for this project, has gone into bankruptcy.
Fourth, leading officials of OAS are in jail awaiting trial on bribery and fraud charges. This means that the two signatories to the January, 2011 highway contract, the former minister of works of Trinidad and Tobago and OAS officials are now all facing corruption charges.
Fifth, in mid-2010, the Inter-American Development Bank refused to entertain a loan for this highway project, stating that the tendering process was flawed.
Here is a quote from Mr George Elias on his Facebook page of August 2015: “You mean to tell us that our government gave a $7 billion contract on a sole tender arrangement to a company that has gone into bankruptcy? Wasn’t any due diligence done on OAS? How much of our money was advanced to them to help mobilize the project? Are we even certain that they can complete the job and pay the subcontractors they have hired locally?”
Sixth, works on this segment has led to on-site and offsite flooding, site collapse, and drainage failure. On Christmas Day, 2013, homes in Debe, next the interchange, were flooded with up to feet feet of water. In August this year, at Suchit Trace, Debe, residents were flooded out of their homes because of the embankment and drainage failure.
Seventh, remember the government failed to abide by the recommendations of the Armstrong Report, stating that no works should proceed on Debe-Mon Desir, until a hydrology study, a social impact assessment and an environmental cost benefit analysis had been done and assessed.
Eight, remember, too, the Armstrong Report concluded that the Certificate Of Environmental Clearance for Debe-Mon Desir was flawed, and should have been sent back to the applicants –– that is, the Ministry of Works.
Ninth, remember the Institute of Marine Affairs, the Met Office, the Water Resources Agency at WASA, and the EMA’s own technical team had warned about the flooding impacts of a highway on this Oropouche Lagoon
Tenth, the cost of the overall system has now gone beyond the original estimate of TT$7.5 billion. Some sources are quoting a new figure of TT$10 billion; but with hidden costs, the figure could be much more. Remember, the IDB stated that Debe-Mon Desir was overdesigned, and too expensive! Remember that money for this project is a recurrent drain on [the] treasury!
Imagine building a ten to 12-foot embankment over a lagoon! Imagine five large interchanges on a nine-mile stretch of highway! In the rest of Trinidad there are only two interchanges!
The smart concept is to build connector roads within communities, and connect them to highways on the outskirts. What is wrong with this concept? To put it another way, Debe to Mon Desir is the wrong fit for such an economically rich and ecologically fragile part of our island.
We are advising the government to adopt the right approach:
Build the highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin;
Build a connector road from the Debe interchange to Penal at the level of the existing road architecture;
Repair the M2 connector between the Mosquito Creek North and the Debe interchange; and
Reroute the highway across empty Caroni lands from Debe to the Mosquito Creek North.
The time for accountability, science, common sense, equitability and sustainability has come. Any government that plays fast and loose with these principles risks another five years of attrition, rage, social war, call it what you will.
Our governments now have no choice but to do what is reasonable. Do what is right. Make the right first step.
(Wayne Kublalsingh is head of The Highway Reroute Movement of Trinidad.)