Jakarta monorail builder sees on-time completion

PHOTO: Jakarta monorail builder sees on-time completion

JAKARTA - The chief executive officer of Jakarta's recently revived US$1.6 billion (S$2 billion) monorail transit system says that strong political backing from the central government as well as the municipal government of Governor Joko Widodo will help ensure that the project is completed, as it is now hoped, in 2016, more than a decade after plans for the service were first unveiled.

"You need strong political leadership that says, 'you're either part of this project or you're part of the problem'," says John Aryananda, CEO of PT Jakarta Monorail and managing partner of Singapore-based Ortus Holdings, which holds a 90 per cent stake in the venture.

"We have strong political support. I'm confident we will finish the monorail on time."

Just over a year after winning Jakarta's gubernatorial election, Joko Widodo turned earth for the monorail and an above-and-below ground mass rapid rail project in the span of two weeks, both of which have been planned or delayed for years. On Oct 3, China Communications Construction (CCC) signed an agreement to commit US$1.5 billion to build the two-line, 28-kilometre elevated train line.

Attending the signing ceremony was Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"There were no MOUs," Mr Aryananda said. "The builders had to commit the money."

The development amounts to a second life for the project that was initiated in 2004 by former Jakarta governor Sutiyoso to relieve the city's gridlocked traffic. The project was put on hold in 2008 by his successor Fauzi Bowo, who favoured buses to trains.

The system, which will link the city's administrative buildings with the business and shopping districts, will carry about 300,000 passengers a day when it starts operation in three years.

But since funding dried up for the project, the monorail's 90 or so crumbling pillars - a tenth of what will eventually be needed - stand like rusting dominoes down the city's busiest streets.

"They were relics of mismanagement," says Scott Younger, director of infrastructure consultancy Nusantara Infrastructure, referring to the pillars. Dr Younger was the original writer of the monorail master plan in 2004.

"Every politician or bureaucrat has had a different idea of how to fix Jakarta's traffic but nothing was getting done until now."

The monorail and the MRT will be backed up by road pricing, which will be modelled after Singapore's system in order to encourage drivers to leave their cars at home. Ortus is considering an initial public offering of the venture after the monorail starts operating. The investment company, which was founded by Indonesian businessman Edward Soeryadjaya, is in talks with CCC to sell it a minority stake in the business.

With an eye on legislative and presidential elections next year, politicians are promising to deliver the monorail and other transportation services fast. Joko Widodo, a likely contender for president, made delivery of cheap and safe mass transport projects an election pledge during his campaign for governor.

Mr Aryananda says that he must report progress to the National Development Planning Agency every 10 days.

That's because growth of Jakarta's consumer class appears to be at an inflection point. Regional gross per capita product is more than US$10,000 a year, roughly the income needed to be able to afford a small car, Dr Younger says. It's not surprising then that every day, 1,000 four-wheeled vehicles join the city's narrow streets.

With 26 million crowded into Jakarta's greater metropolitan area, the city has only about 8 per cent of its land given to roads. That's about half the amount most cities dedicate to transport arteries. Monorails are the favoured mass transit remedy in Jakarta's case because the networks follow existing roads, which already belong to the government.

What's more, monorails are scalable, cheaper to run and quiet. The MRT, which is being built with loans from the Japanese government will carry about 20 per cent more passengers than the monorail but it will cost three times as much to build per kilometre. The project will require the removal of five million cubic metres of earth, through the city's already clogged traffic arteries as workers tunnel under the capital.

"The die's been cast," Dr Younger says. "The only way you can build is up."

Challenges are already brewing, Mr Aryananda says. The MRT, the existing bus services as well as some dozen other agencies and companies are failing to reach agreements on building interchanges that will let passengers move from one service to another. That could deter passengers who are already fleeing the city's badly managed bus services in ever larger numbers.

The project doesn't appear to involve provision of its own power source either. The monorail will probably need its own 60-megawatt power plant. The capital's power generators and grid are running at about 98 per cent capacity on average, Dr Younger says. The rule of thumb for most cities is to have about 13 per cent spare capacity at any given time.

"You don't want to be stuck between terminals on this sealed train with no air conditioning for any length of time," Dr Younger says.

Still, the odds are that the project will be completed. Public opinion, political muscle and private money are moving badly needed transport projects towards the finish line years after they were already needed. Mr Aryananda says that he's confident he will be able to link bus and rail services at six of the city's biggest transport nodes with pedestrian bridges.

"It won't be like Paris, where you can pay with one ticket and move seamlessly from one service to another, but it will work."

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