The great Causeway rip-off

IT IS baffling how Malaysia-Singapore authorities are forcing motorists to pay more for use of the Causeway and yet offer virtually nothing by way of improved services, better conveniences or efficient traffic movement.

Traffic on the Causeway which is notorious for its daily snarls and gridlock during peak morning and evening hours, is still at a chock-a-block. This despite the hefty toll and other charges on both sides of the border for day-trippers and casual visitors using the 1.05km-long crossing.

The charges for toll and Vehicle Entry Permit (by Singapore) have more than tripled in recent weeks, which consequently will also see bus and taxi fares go up dramatically.

The 50,000-odd Johoreans, who commute to Singapore for work daily, will be the worst hit by this wanton hike in rates ... the same people who help spur local economic activity by bringing back and spending ready cash in JB.

Even assuming each one takes home a conservative RM3,500 income a month, we're talking about some RM175 million in cash floating around JB. That is an enormous contribution to the local economy.

But do the people at the helm in Putrajaya and Kota Iskandar care, or even understand the impact should they call it quits from Singapore?

Except for one or two government parliamentarians and local assemblymen, there have hardly been any voices criticising the Causeway rate hikes. Even civil society groups, non-governmental organisations and consumer bodies, strangely, have been silent on the matter.

You can't help but feel sorry for the people of Johor. We are being besieged by all these outrageous rate increases by the authorities any which way they like, and yet very few have the courage or stamina to speak up for us.

It is almost as if we do not exist ... we are supposed to bite the bullet and take it lying down, and not whine about it.

However, amid the recent spate of fee hike announcements from both sides of the Causeway, some new ideas are suddenly being floated around. One is to increase the JB-Woodlands commuter train service during peak hours.

Malayan Railways Berhad (KTM) is sitting on a goldmine in JB and it does not even know it. Now is the time to be proactive and seize the opportunity by increasing the train frequency.

Apparently, three new services have been added, but this is far from adequate. With the one-way trip taking hardly five minutes, surely KTM could explore introducing services at 15-minute intervals to move the humongous number of people eager to cross the Causeway in the most convenient and efficient way possible.

Then, there are also calls to reintroduce walkways for pedestrians who prefer to beat the morning and evening traffic crawl and make a dash across the crossing on foot.

Before the old CIQ was demolished, this was the norm for a great number of people who could cover the distance in about 15 minutes. However, for security reasons, pedestrians were barred with the opening of the new CIQ at Bukit Chagar.

Perhaps, it is time the Malaysian authorities revisited this proposition.

Yet another fabulous suggestion is that MRCB, the concessioner of the Eastern Dispersal Link (EDL), which is now collecting Causeway toll, should provide free JB-Woodlands shuttle bus services for commuters.

This is a worthy corporate social responsibility initiative that would go a long way towards boosting goodwill instead of the acrimony with which the public now view this company.

If not for buses, how about starting a water-taxi service instead at nominal fares. This would be an instant hit. Perhaps, MRCB could garner enough revenue from this service alone, to offset the cost of building the RM1.3 billion EDL.

The two-way cost of using the Causeway now almost matches toll charges on the Malaysia-Singapore 2nd Crossing linking Gelang Patah to Tuas in Singapore. Hence, it is now timely for the Malaysian Highway Authority to divert all heavy vehicles to the 2nd Link.

Previously, lorry drivers had refused to budge, citing the high toll rates there. However, now that it really makes no difference, it would be logical for them to consider shifting to the 2nd Link and help relieve the Causeway of its vehicular load.

This should also apply to tour coaches, factory buses and small lorries, all of which tend to choke the Causeway during morning and evening peak hours, making it a nightmare for commuters to make a crossing.

And while still on the subject of easing causeway jams, how about expanding the crossing sideways to add more lanes? This would be much more economical and viable than plans to build a grandiose new bridge or tunnel.

Ultimately, the toll hikes must be justified by improved services. Otherwise it is a total rip-off, pure and simple! And ideas abound on how services can be accomplished. But the question is, are the authorities in Malaysia and Singapore listening. More importantly, will they listen?

Roy, a long-time resident of JB, is a keen watcher of economic, political and social trends on both sides of the Johor Straits. Comments: