WITH the Raya exodus poised to begin over the next few days, those headed for Penang are wont to sigh at the thought of traffic snarls in and around the island.

There was a time when crossing from Butterworth to George Town (and vice versa) entailed hours of sweating in the car, waiting for slow-mo ferries to transport vehicles across the narrow straits.

The 13.5km Penang Bridge, which opened to traffic in September 1985, brought welcome relief as it enabled traffic to zoom straight into Gelugor from Seberang Perai.

But over the years, traffic has built up again, especially with the latter area seeing a spate of growth recently. And come festive season, it’s back to the gridlock as hordes rush to balik kampung. Well, Penangites and visitors to the Pearl of the Orient will have to be patient for a few more years, as the Second Penang Bridge is scheduled to roll out only in 2013. With the new link, island-bound traffic will be able to flow from Batu Kawan in Seberang Perai, to Batu Maung on the other end.

The update from Penang Public Works, Utilities and Transportation Committee chairman Lim Hock Seng is that more than 50% of piling work on the 24km second bridge has been completed. Casting of the segmental box girdle is in full swing and contracts for the land road developments have been awarded.

Overall, more than 25% of the mega project is done. It’s now time to go into full swing to make sure that the bridge is ready by September 2013, Lim says.

“Yes, the first Penang Bridge was expanded, but by 2012, traffic will again exceed its capacity. Now, we have 64,000 vehicles using the bridge daily – and that’s just one way. We’re expecting 80,000 vehicles in two years.

“We need the second bridge to divert at least 25% of the traffic from the first bridge. By the time the signages are ready and the tests and trial runs conducted, it will probably only be open to traffic early 2014.”

Lim admits that the state government does not have any power to ensure that the project is delivered on time, but he thinks the companies responsible will not risk having to pay liquidated damages which could amount to “tens of thousands (of ringgit) per day” to the federal government for any delay.

“The state gvernment can only monitor the cost and progress closely. Any delay will cause the cost to balloon from its estimated RM4.5bil.” Ultimately, it will be Penangites and other motorists who will have to bear the increase in the cost, through higher tolls, he says. In June, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said in Parliament that come 2013, the toll rate for the second bridge would be RM1.90 for motorcycles; RM9.40 for cars, taxis and two-axle vans (except MPVs); RM16.20 for two-axle lorries, which include pick-ups and MPVs, and RM33.60 for vans, buses and six-wheeled lorries.

Currently, the toll for cars plying the Penang Bridge is RM7.

The second bridge project comprises three main packages: construction of the sub-structure by CHEC Construction Sdn Bhd (the local arm of China Harbour Engineering Co Ltd); casting of the segmental box girdle by UEM Builders Bhd; and construction of the Batu Kawan and Batu Maung exit and entry points and trumpet interchange by Cergas Murni, IJM Construction and HRA Teguh.

Package one includes piling and the building of pile caps, columns and the navigation span.

Lim says as of April this year, over 13% of this package has been completed “but CHEC will have to play catch up now because of delays caused when the company had to amend its pile caps and columns design to ensure that they can withstand an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale.

“Although big vessels will not be allowed to pass under the bridge, they must take into account the possibility of shipping accidents,” he says, adding that dredging work is almost done. Dredging is necessary to enable barges and machinery to access the site as the waters are too shallow. The most difficult part of CHEC’s work is putting on the piling caps, he observes.

UEM has started casting more than 8,000 segmental box girdles and almost 20% of package two has been completed, as of April too.

As for package three, the contractors have their hands full with preliminary work, including setting up offices in Penang, mobilising their machinery and conducting land surveys.

Contracts for the construction of the toll plazas have yet to be awarded and the state has called on all the main contractors involved to engage Penang-based sub-contractors and to source for materials locally.

The second bridge, which will have a lifespan of 120 years, mirrors the first in design. Initially, there were plans for two viewing platforms, complete with restaurants, but that was scrapped due to a lack of funds. The platforms would have added another RM600mil to the costs. The cost factor has also put the brakes on additional lanes to meet increasing traffic volume, down the road.

“Just like the first bridge, additional piling must be done if we want to expand the second bridge,” Lim says.

The first bridge has been widened from two to three lanes each way (except for the centrespan). The third lane opened in August last year.

To accommodate future expansion, additional piling should be done from the start. However, the cost of putting in place piling that allows for such expansion is equivalent to building one-and-a-half bridges, he estimates.

In an even more ideal scenario, the foundation piling of the Second Penang Bridge should accommodate a Light Rail Transit (LRT).

“In 10 to 30 years, an LRT could prove very important, especially if we can successfully promote the park and ride system of using public transportation. No doubt the investment will be great but it is very necessary,” says Datuk Dr Teng Hock Nan, former State Local Government and Traffic Committee chairman.

Dr Teng notes that Penang’s economy has been booming since the 90s, thanks to its electronics industry.

“We were transforming from a low-capital, high-labour economy to one that was low in human resource but high in capital investment. There was a need for better infrastructure and amenities such as power and water supply. Flooding problems and traffic jams had to be solved.

“Connectivity between the island and mainland was a big concern because in case anything were to happen on the existing bridge, it would be disastrous for the MNCs, especially with new industrial parks in Juru and Bukit Minyak coming up,” he explains.

It was decided that a second bridge would be that vital link, besides being “a lifeline for the state’s economy”. When completed, the bridge will “instil confidence in multi-national companies to expand their existing operations in the state, and attract new private investments,” Dr Teng says.

Initially, a Japanese company proposed a link between Tanjung Tokong on the island and Bagan on the mainland. It was rejected, for several reasons.

“The Japanese proposal was for an underwater tunnel and a bridge link, but they wanted to handle everything themselves, from the design and contractors to the material supplies. Furthermore, the sites of the link were already developed; we didn’t think the tunnel-bridge could add any value to these locations,” he adds.

So the planners looked south to Batu Maung, a relatively underdeveloped enclave compared to the rest of the island. Across the straits, Batu Kawan looked ideal to draw development to the south of Seberang Prai.

The proposal for the new bridge was approved by the federal government in 2004 and construction finally commenced on in November 2008, after months of delay caused by land acquisition issues.

Other grouses have surfaced since. In June this year, some 80 inshore fishermen in Kampung Changkat voiced unhappiness that mid-sea dredging by contractors at the second bridge construction site had affected marine life in the area.

They claimed that their catch had dropped drastically in the last 10 years, after the Pulau Burung sanitary landfill opened nearby. The situation has worsened since the bridge project started, they added.

The fishermen said they could hardly make RM10 per catch daily compared to nearly RM200 per catch daily previously.

A Fisheries Development Authority of Malaysia (LKIM) report states that piling, dredging and landfill works, environment pollution and the movement of ships and boats in the area have all contributed to the dwindling catch.

State Agriculture, Rural Development and Flood Mitigation Committee chairman Law Choo Kiang says the state government meets periodically with the fishermen’s association, LKIM and Fisheries Department to gather the information on this issue.

“Jambatan Kedua Sdn Bhd (JKSB) has also been instructed to complete a Fishery Impact Assessment and to follow every guideline set by the various technical departments including the Department of Environment, Land Office and LKIM and others.”

However, Law adds that dwindling catch is also a problem worldwide and cites climate change, water and sea pollution and lack of awareness of environmental protection as some of the factors behind that.

He “welcomes” federal government assistance to help with the ex-gratia payment proposed by LKIM and the Fisheries Department for fishermen and aquaculture owners affected by the second bridge. “We would like the federal government and JKSB to deal with this urgently.

“LKIM and the Fisheries Department have taken steps to alleviate the situation by placing artificial corals at Kendi Island and Gedung Island at a cost of RM400,000. Muka Head will be next,” he says.