More than a Grave Situation

May 31, 2012

More than a Grave Situation
Singapore’s Bukit Brown saga reveals serious potholes in planning and public relations

By: Christopher Tan

The Bukit Brown “problem” is yet another classic case of opposing needs that cities the world over grapple with every now and then – of urbanism versus environmentalism, of progress versus heritage, of mobility versus liveability.

That is not the real controversy, though, because such a struggle is to be expected in any modern metropolis populated with people who have diverse views and priorities. To me, the most startling thing about the whole Bukit Brown affair pertains to poor planning and even poorer communication with the public.

The Government had conceptualised Lornie Road as a crucial link of the Outer Ring Road system way back in the 1990s. It has spent more than $400 million so far on a series of overpasses and underpasses to connect arterial roads from Tampines to Queensway, forming an unbroken “circle” just outside the city centre. With hardly any traffic lights along the way, this ring allows motorists to bypass the congested (and ERP-priced) city area without going onto any expressway (which is often priced, too).

One of the last pieces of the Outer Ring Road jigsaw is the Lornie Viaduct. Construction started in 2004, and the $34 million project was completed in 2008. As soon as it opened, congestion in Lornie Road worsened. The LTA’s traffic engineers should have seen this coming. A viaduct increases flow rate, allowing more vehicles to ply into Lornie than before.

Soon afterwards, the authorities widened Lornie Road. This was finished in 2009. Just two years later, the Bukit Brown road project was announced.

The planners had more than a decade to determine the configuration of the Outer Ring Road system. And when the Lornie viaduct was being constructed, they had another four years to fine-tune what should be done to ensure a road system that would at least be able to cope with demand for the next 10 years.

If a road through Bukit Brown was deemed necessary, it should have been built back when the Lornie overpass was being erected. If Lornie Road needed to be widened significantly, the authorities could also have got on with the job when the viaduct was planned. It might have had to make the difficult decision to acquire a row of bungalows along Lornie, but the Government has never shied away from tough decisions –  certainly not when property acquisitions are concerned.

Or alternatively, they could have extended the Lornie flyover to span the entire length of Lornie Road. This would have created a two-tier road that should be able to handle future demand.

But from how things panned out (as described above), this was not to be. Instead, we have witnessed a series of patchwork projects. To make things worse, the Government says Lornie Road will be downsized to a dual two-lane road after the Bukit Brown project is up in 2016. It is now three-lane in one direction and four-lane in the other. In defence, it says the widening of Lornie was an “interim measure”.

Spending tens of millions to widen a road, only to downsize it in seven years is haphazard planning at best, and an irresponsible use of tax dollars at worst. The money spent is one thing. What about the invisible costs in the form of traffic disruptions, noise and dust that motorists and residents nearby had to endure from 2004 (when the construction of the viaduct started)?

The second shortcoming of the Bukit Brown saga is poor communication. When the four-lane dual carriageway that cuts through the cemetery was announced in September 2011, nary a word was said about why it was necessary and why the alignment chosen was best. It was only after various civil groups kicked up a fuss that efforts were made to communicate and “engage”.

The No. 1 rule about engaging the public is timeliness. You don’t engage them after the fact. And engagement starts with effective explanation. For instance, people have to understand why the Bukit Brown road has to be built now, when the site is not due for redevelopment until some time in 2050. Or why building a second deck along the entire stretch of Lornie Road is not feasible. (Traffic disruptions during construction was cited as one main reason, but as one industry watcher put it, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”.) Or why the planned Thomson MRT Line will not be sufficient in crimping road demand along that corridor.

These clarifications have to be communicated early, and not after people have been worked up. Otherwise, the effort – however sincere – can be counter-productive.

To be sure, there will be more Bukit Brown-like challenges ahead. Singapore will do well to recognise that, and embrace the need for proper planning and positive dialogue.