By: Jai Parasram
The leader of the People’s National Movement, Dr. Keith Rowley, pledged during his contribution to the budget debate that he would build the Rapid Rail System, which was one of the unpopular mega projects of the Patrick Manning PNM administration.
The incoming People’s Partnership government scrapped the idea because it just could not be done, and focused instead on extending the Solomon Hochoy Highway from Golconda to Point Fortin at a cost of $7.2 billion. It’s a project the PNM had been talking about since the days of Eric Williams but beyond talk, the highway was only a plan.
And so was the Rapid Rail system: a plan; a very expensive one. So when Dr. Rowley pledged to build the rail system if he gets into government in 2015 it raised many questions, including this rhetorical one from government House Leader, Dr. Roodal Moonilal: “You mean to tell me the taxpayers of this country are still paying millions of dollars in 2015 on that rapid rail…”.
Moonilal introduced that during a meeting of the Standing Finance Committee to highlight the PNM blunder on that project. In fact the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration has been paying that debt and by 2015 would have paid $256.7 million, according to budget documents. That’s a quarter billion dollars for a project that might have cost more than $60 billion T&T didn’t have and could not afford. Yes, $60 billion, nearly 10 times the cost of the highway to Point Fortin and the whole of the national budget for one year.
And for what?
According to an interview published in the Trinidad and Tobago media in 2012 the President of NIDCO – the National Infrastructure Development Company – Dr. Carson Charles, noted that contrary to what the PNM likes to tell people no feasibility was done but the government agreed to pay out half a billion dollars.
“…you spend $500 million doing investigations and designs, but you haven’t done a feasibility yet, and you don’t know what the cost of the project is. How do you find out the cost of the project?” Dr Charles told the Business Guardian.
But it gets more interesting. Dr Charles noted that the project had to be stopped because it was “a crazy” one. “A decision was taken to implement a rapid rail project here. No feasibility study was done. In other words, nobody knew what it would cost, but a decision was taken to do it,” Charles added.
So with no idea of what it would cost, the government of Trinidad and Tobago of which Dr Rowley was a part, awarded a contract to a company to design, build, operate and maintain the rail system without even having a finance package. It was a case of poor and irresponsible fiscal planning for which the PNM was notably famous.
That public private partnership (PPP) project was awarded to a group called the TriniTrain consortium, which included as a major partner, a French firm called Bouygues.
“In fact, there were two consultant firms, both foreign. So the consultants are foreign, the design-build-operate-and-maintain contractor is foreign (French) and they are reporting directly to the president of Nidco,” Dr. Charles told the Guardian.
He said the government did not have a local enginner assigned neither did it have a planner or economist. It was a wholseale deal with the foreingers to have a free hand to come in and build, with the foreigners reporting only to the president of NIDCO. Here is what the Manning regime had planned to do:
- Phase I: surveys, geo-technical work
- Phase II: Construction of the rail system, bring in the rail cars
- Phase III: Completion of project
Phase I cost over $500 million and the second phase would have cost about $46 billion plus the cost of acquisitions, and all other consultancy and management fees, Charles told the Guardian.
“…We talking about somewhere between $50 billion to $60 billion, at least, for this project. That’s what I mean by a project we can’t afford…So we paid them the half a billion. We had no choice because they did the work already, but you know, we can’t use any of the information. It’s just sitting there,” Charles added. “We can’t use information on rail cars…to build anything else,” Charles said.
Here’s the craziest part of the entire project. “They were given a contract to do all of it, but the contract was phased, so at the end of phase I, you could decide if you should proceed to phase II or not,” Charles said. “Although we had spent about $500 million, we knew we couldn’t find $60 billion, so we had to say no to Phase II.”
Bur Dr Rowley is going to build the rail system without any idea of what it would cost at today’s prices and where the money would come from. If in 2008 it was $60 billion you can be assured it would be a lot more in 2015. Sixty billion dollars could give Trinidad and Tobago all the hospitals, police stations and schools we need. And it could also build the highways and develop the existing transit system, not to mention enhanced social services to help lift people out of povertty. The debt of a quarter billion that the Kamla government is repaying for that one project is robbing citizens of vital funds.
Last week the Prime Minister promised a probe into the wastage at the Las Alturas project.
Perhaps she should do the same with many others that the PNM touched – like the billion-dollar Taruba stadium that can’t be finsihed, the scandals at UTT, the church at Guanapo.
And she should ask Rowley and the PNM to account to the people for the half a billion they wasted on a rapid rail project without even considering whether it was feasible or affordable for our country.
That French connection, it seems, was more important that building Trinidad and Tobago. And if you give Rowley a chance to sit in government he is going right back to France.