Mass Transport and Island Politics

While Reunion Island moves away from a costly tramway to an overhead, easier to build, fast-mover, we are planning exactly the reverse! Can we both be right?

The subject of a Metro Express, so dubbed, most people assume, to differentiate it from its elder brother, the Metro Leger, is now embroiled in a fracas of political and social controversies, some the result of a lack of transparency, others through legitimate concerns about its financial or even its economic viability and still others about the lack of minimal consultations and the rush to massive builder contracts, which government wants to sign towards month-end.

Our purpose here is not to go over the numerous concerns expressed, nor about the short-circuiting of a proper EIA or, at the very least, a coherent and concerted public information that could have led to a possible population ownership process. Still less is this about the gigantic scale of investments, the financial forecasts of viability and on their premises, the as yet undefined but probably massive subsidies to manage the line-services by an operator of repute, who remains to be chosen until such bids are called for. Quite a spateful of unknowns.

Nor again is this about the highly charged political atmosphere, with a 180 degree about-switch of the MSM in two years over the Metro project, and the looming unpredictable by-election in constituency No. 18, that of Quatre-Bornes – Belle Rose. It was rather easily foreseeable that Mr Bhadain’s resignation from the National Assembly, initially posited as a national referendum on the Metro Express, would not budge authorities which seem determined to plough on with decisions and contracts whatever the impassioned electoral debates or the outcome of the by-election. The by-election could now turn into a larger mid-term test-bed of government’s standing, bilan and prospects.

Mass transit in Reunion and Mauritius

Away from all this, our modest ambit here is to have a cursory look from press and web articles on the similar debates and political decision-making in our sister island Reunion regarding a mass transit system. Strangely enough, and despite our proximities, the lessons from Reunion have barely been referred to by the local body politic or by our local press. Yet, both our islands, admittedly in far different political contexts, have, with increasing development pressures, been faced with a creeping rise in massive road-traffic congestions and associated wastes for the economy, for imported fuel or for the environment.

Both capitals, Port Louis and St Denis, are frustratingly constrained and are a nightmarish prospect at peak hours. Topography made Reunion island highly dependent on the circular littoral roads and there was little it could do about that state of affairs. Mauritius, on the other hand had wider latitudes to develop east-west and north-south axes, but, over decades, focused most of its development and population along the Curepipe to Port Louis corridor, to the point that it is today virtually an unending and largely unplanned single township spread.

We have historically probably been earlier and longer than Reunion at weighing the pros and cons of some form of mass transport along that corridor: dedicated bus lanes, light rail, tramway and all metro variants. We had perhaps more choices to consider than Reunion but as an independent state with limited financial and technical capacities we probably needed an extra measure of vigilance that we did not engage into a massive project lightly. So, over twenty years, the reports and studies kept accumulating, the wastes and congestion pressures kept growing, despite the operation of the Terre-Rouge-Verdun motorway and numerous by-passes.

The Mauritius conundrum

In 2014, as we gather from press reports, the Labour Party and the LP-MMM alliance proposed to implement an overhead Metro Leger, running at decent speeds the 28 kms from Curepipe to Port-Louis mostly on “pilotis”, estimated to cost some US$ 850 m or Rs 24 billion. But both funding and details of assistance sought from India, stoutly opposed by the MSM, were kept in abeyance till after general elections which was lost by the LP-MMM alliance in circumstances we know.

Today the MSM, in a remarkable about-face of which politicians hold the secret, proposes a Metro Express, a double-track ground-level tramway, operating I believe on imported fuel. From the rather sketchy information being offered or extracted should we say, government estimated and budgeted costs are of Rs 21 billion for a half-stretch of 13 kms, which, if those figures are creditworthy, would bring the 28 km Curepipe-Port Louis Metro-tramway to between Rs 45 and 50 billion, or nearly twice the overhead Metro Leger figures mentioned in 2014.

Out of this, it seems that some Rs 9-10 billion will be tapped from the Government of India generous grant, which would still leave the country a staggering bill of Rs 35-40 billion in US$ credit, to foot and provision for future capital and interest repayments. It is in effect double the highly mediatised Rs 17.7 billion announced by the MSM as the imperative ceiling for total Metro Express project costs. No explanation is as yet readily forthcoming on real costs of the 28 km stretch. Sign first, explain and justify after, seems to the government motto, a position which must seem eerily odd even to the Minister for Public Infrastructure!

As for ticket prices or traveller traffic volumes, virtually nothing credible can be stated at this early stage and it would be naïve to think that any reliable international operator would accept the risks and responsibilities of line management without iron-clad guarantees and a variety of safeguard clauses, including travelling numbers and heavy government subsidies to make ticket prices moderately attractive and affordable. We know that like the IPPs, they might favour a no-risk management contract and could be expected to discharge themselves of virtually all responsibilities vis-a-vis accidents, deaths, delays or breakdowns. The government that inherits the poisoned chalice will have its work cut-out to complete the missing half of the corridor and negotiate operations, tariffs and guarantees with potential line-service operators when that time comes.

The Reunion conundrum

So, to come back to our canvas, what were the Reunion experiences and what, if anything, can we glean from them? Like us, their Mass Transit proposals and systems, essentially about 20 km each side of St Denis, linking Ste Marie and the airport to St Paul through the capital St Denis, went through two distinct phases. Curiously, they are exactly the reverse of what we are going through and therefore somewhat instructive, even making allowances for our significant differences in political and economic structures.

 a) The electric tramway

In 2007, the Reunion Region completed its first Public Feasibility and Utility study regarding an electric surface tramway of 40 km, including 3 tunnels, estimated to cost Euro 1.6 billion or some Rs 60 billion. That sounds comparable to our Government’s tramway or surface-tracked Metro Express being proposed today at Rs 45 billion for 28 kms.

The Verges-led communist-socialist alliance benefited then from central French government and EU support for their vast program of public infrastructure and sustainable development, including alternative energies, the electric tramway and the Tamaris littoral road. After two years of consultations and appeals against the project to the courts, the Public Utility tribunal’s green light was secured in April 2009, in August negotiations started with two powerful consortia.

In December 2009 a 45-year contract was duly signed with the winning consortium (including Colas, Veolia, Bouygues and Bombardier) for a two-stage development of the tramway on the Build-Operate-Transfer mould. The capital investment of 1.6 billion Euros was to be met through a 50:50 partnership between the private consortium and the various avenues of French and EU public funds.

Scheduled to enter in operation in 2014, passenger traffic was estimated to average 50,000 daily and it appears that the Region contractually proposed to pay for 30 years an annual subsidy of Euro 100m to the Consortium over and above, we assume, traveller ticket and other revenues. In addition, the Verges-led Region also asked the French government a special “dotation ferroviaire” of Euro 80m annually over 45 years of project life to “compensate” the private operators. Obviously, despite the good intentions, it was running out of its depth and the project threatened to engulf resources far beyond French and EU generosity!

 b) Contract resiliation

At the regional elections in 2010, and against a divided left, Didier Robert won a handsome majority and having consulted French PM Fillon, almost immediately resiliated the December 2009 contract on the basis that the massive level of capital costs and the equally overwhelming operational subsidies required over such long periods were simply unsustainable. The French central government duly refused the “dotation ferroviaire” and reallocated its share of investment to alternatives. As main alternative, the Didier Robert region enlarged the littoral coast road to accommodate buses and a more fluid traffic. Claims and damages to the tune of some Euro 170 m from the Tramway Consortium are believed to be still in Court.

 c) The monorail option

However, congestion was not solved by the alternatives and there were still population rumblings for a more modern solution to increasingly frustrating road traffic to and through the capital. Accordingly, this year Didier Robert having dismissed the Euro 1.6 billion tramway, went round circle and has launched the study of a Monorail project on pilotis, the first leg to be between Ste Marie, the airport and through St Denis centre. This would allow later phased expansion west of St Denis. The initial 10-13 km stretch is estimated at Euro 500m, believed to be more sustainable, offering faster travel speeds. Studies, consultations and legal recourses are expected to be over by 2020, works starting thereafter and operations starting possibly by 2025.

According to a Transport director in Reunion, the overhead structures would be far simpler to construct: “On est sur une infrastructure complètement dénivelée qui peut être préfabriqué. On est sur des modalités simples avec un minimum d’impact.

Some questions

In any case, there are many lessons even from the preliminary comparison entertained here on the basis of press reports and we might just note a couple of points.

a) We note that those Euro 500m estimates correspond with what we might be forking out for the first phase of our proposed sluggish surface-track non-electric tramway. So, while Reunion Island moves away from a costly tramway to an overhead, easier to build, fast-mover, we are planning exactly the reverse! Can we both be right?

b) Contrarily to Reunion, the Mauritian Government has opted for dissociating the construction bids (massive in themselves) from the future operator bids (implying massive subsidy uncertainties). Is this wise? What unknown difficulties are being created down the tracks?

c) For a Rs 50 billion surface-track project that would be binding for future generations of citizens, travellers and public finances, can we afford to sidestep a transparent and detailed EIA or Public Utility process with due respect for communication and consultation? Reunion’s experience suggests three years between initiation of feasibility study, public consultations (including any legal recourse) and contract signature. Why are authorities itching to sign contracts before consultations?

d) Are our travelling volumes being inflated and what level of subsidies are being envisaged on an annual basis by Government and its consultants to maintain reasonable fares, including the non-paying travelling public and those qualifying for reduced rates?

e) With the benefit of hindsight with IPP contracts, with the mismanaged resiliation saga over the Betamax contract, will Government in its negotiations ensure proper and adequate safety, termination and exit clauses and will it take proper expert legal advice to that effect?

f) Some independent economists, without being alarmists, have warned about real risks that a future government, of whatever hue and combination, may find itself facing empty state coffers, a mountain of public debt, unknown guarantees offered to large operators or friendly foreign states. Some have warned that there may arise untenable IMF-WB pressures to disinvest and restore credibility to our institutions and public finances. We cannot overrule therefore that a new government may be forced to either cancel the surface-track Metro Express project outright or, if matters have not gone too far, impose a re-engineering based on pilotis.

The Minister of Public Utilities, with a town and country planning (TCP) background and a long-time MSM loyalist was perhaps the best choice to pilot through the mass transit system we need. Any TCP must be profoundly disturbed at the way things are being handled and forced through. As an opposition MP, the Minister would probably have gone on rampage against the way decisions are being reached and implemented. He might have raised hell about future accidents and deaths on our rail-tracks. He might even have raised furore up and down the countryside that the citoyens of Grand Gaube, Souillac and Riviere Noire would be gang-pressed to fork out massive subsidies annually for the corridor travellers. But does the TCP still have standing with the Minister?

U.C.

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