Putting this country back on its feet

Lance Neita

Sunday, February 17, 2019

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Travelling to Kingston these days from the country can be quite an event. The preparations begin days before when you make the solemn announcement that you are planning a visit or a business trip. Immediately you are bombarded with advice on what route to take, what times to travel, what time to beat the traffic.

The trip takes on a military-style operation as you are urged to take on extra supplies, snacks and water, and a pillow in case you are marooned in any single one of many traffic snarls. The situation almost calls for prayer and fond farewells and a promise to write.

On your return friends gather around to ask how it went, what time you reached, and the invariable comparison to other experiences of being stranded on Mandela Highway in the homeward-bound traffic.

Recent circumstances have forced me to travel to Kingston often and take roads less travelled. I have been caught up in the Hagley Park triangles, been tried and tested on Constant Spring Road at 8:00 am (and failed), fled the Maxfield/Waltham Park connection, and have fallen into potholes and a state of panic when I lose my bearings and have no idea where I am.

What amazes me is the patience shown by drivers caught up in the mess. Stuck for hours one afternoon in the Hagley Park area and with no refreshment counter within sight and the rain pouring down, I braced myself for horn-blowing and angry taxi drivers as my car stalled in one of those ponds that spring up whenever rain falls.

To my pleasant surprise and relief I was the only one showing any sign of agitation. Drivers patiently waited for me to restart, chug along to the next stoplight, allowed me to ease over on the sidewalk, and the pedestrians came to my rescue with a look in the engine and a reminder to get gas.

Same thing on Mandela Highway in the morning or in the evening, rush-hour time. Miles and lines of vehicles and cars waiting patiently.

We country people have learnt how to plan the expedition. Leave St Ann at 5:00 am and you can beat the early morning 7:00 am traffic. But if you have business uptown its best to go downtown, find Harbour Street if you can, and then turn up towards Cross Roads, Half-Way-Tree, or New Kingston, going against the traffic flow which at that time is streaming south to the business places and schools.

Now, in the evening, if you can complete your business by 3:0 pm and head out of town, you have made it, as Mandela Highway starts piling up with outward traffic by 3:45 pm. And what a story to tell if and when we get back home the same day and can boast about how we beat the Kingston traffic.

My late friend, the legendary Robert “Bobby” Linton (whose wife “Miss Myrtle” just passed away last week, God rest her soul), operated a gas station at St D'Acre. The family-owned station is one of the oldest service points in the island. St D'Acre is located between Brown's Town and Alexandria in St Ann.

Robert represented the second generation in the family business, with the third generation now actively engaged in the well-known family enterprise.

Robert loved to tell the story of his father going into Kingston one morning in his Bedford truck and returning the same day. It caused consternation and amazement in the village, because at that time nobody believed it was possible to make the return trip in under 24 hours.

The wheel is now turning full circle in terms of time taken to travel to Kingston and back.

Now with all the massive construction taking place in the city, and in rural areas as well, Jamaicans are showing admirable patience, especially in the Corporate Area. The editorial in this newspaper on Wednesday last (February 13) is spot on in suggesting that we Jamaicans are patient because we know that the projects were long overdue and will make life much better upon completion. The point is made that we have great expectations for much-improved infrastructure and, therefore, are prepared to put up with the inconvenience — assuming that there is indeed light at the end of the numerous tunnels cropping up in sundry places.

The editorial issues a caution note, however: “We hope that the Administration is mindful that patience is not limitless and can run out at any time. Any temptation to slow down or take this patience for granted could be costly and is to be stoutly resisted.”

In the meantime the National Works Agency's communication chief Stephen Shaw deserves national commendation. He invariably speaks with confidence and clarity that restores some measure of hope when the situation looks daunting. His calm voice and his technical knowledge has done much to stabilise and restore the image of the works agency despite the numerous glitches and shortcomings.

Stephen has also inserted some creative words and phrases into the lexicon of the road engineering and design that have become trademarks of his communication genius. His “corridors” and “wing walls” and “approach roads” have given new life to the staid old Public Works Department's road signs which formed the core language for communication in the old days: “Double corner ahead”, “steep hill”, “road narrows”, and the ubiquitous and often misleading “Men at work”.

But let this stand. One good thing that has come out of this traffic nightmare is the demonstration of the capacity of our people for displaying patience and cooperation in times of stress.

Would that we could show similar patience and courtesy in good times when the lanes are free and the roadways and pavements are unencumbered by construction equipment and faulty directional signs. Because that is when the road hogs take over.

In the meantime, my Thursday evening club brought up an interesting thought the other day. Will the additional lanes being constructed on Mandela Highway, for example, prove enough to accommodate the influx of vehicles and the ever-increasing volume of traffic on that highway during morning and evening (and late night) rush hours?

My mentor, Dr Alfred Sangster, shared his observations with me on this very matter when I visited him at his home last week: “We need to take a look at the car in the Jamaican economy,” said Dr Sangster. Apart from the traffic congestion caused by what seems to be an influx of cars, what are these numbers contributing to, or taking out of the economy?

The banks are competing with each other to provide easy access loans, observed Dr Sangster, and a lot of people are being enticed into purchasing these high-cost $11-million to $15-million cars and getting caught in the debt trap.

“Foreign exchange earnings,” he suggested, “largely through agriculture, bauxite and tourism, are significantly eroded by the payment for these cars.”

“The society,” he concluded, “needs to practice disciplined care for the ownership of a car and the priority of financial planning. A critical look needs to be taken at the car industry with a view to regulating the cost and excessive importing of cars.”

Of course, and I end on a humorous note, we may well be reminded of a period in Jamaica when a People's National Party Government, led by Michael Manley (or was it the other way around as some pundits have said), in a move to 'equalise' the society, imposed astronomical taxes on motor vehicle importation as one of their first socialist policy changes following the 1972 election victory.

But the Jamaica Labour Party Opposition spokesman on finance Edward Seaga took them to task with a tease and a riposte that has become enshrined as one of those great and unforgettable moments in our history of parliamentary debates.

In his budget speech response to the increases, he listed the new valuation for vehicles which almost doubled the existing prices, and then paused, looked around at each Member of the House, (it was quite easy to do that on his side), and asked, “Mr Speaker, is that what this Government means when it says that it is putting the country back on its feet?”

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant, writer and historian. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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