Faced with the persistent problem of high traffic volumes on Jamaica's roads, which results in traffic congestion in major towns and business centres across the island, reducing bottlenecks and improving the management of traffic are two of the caveats of the Vision 2030 Transport Development Plan.
Within the strategic document, the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) has outlined a number of solutions to not only reduce congestion to include major budgetary projects such as the rehabilitation, expansion and addition of roads. In fact, over the last 15 years, in particular, the Government — across different administrations — has expended significant amounts on roadwork to tackle the challenge of traffic congestion. For example, in 2008, the Government disbursed over $500 million to repair main roads under the Road Management Fund (RMF), particularly to fix roads damaged as a result of Hurricane Dean in 2007 and Tropical Storm Gustav in 2008. The aim of the project was to improve traffic management in order to achieve a reduction in traffic congestion and easing of traffic flow in highly congested areas.
Since then, another US$750 million has been spent on road development projects under two similar programmes — Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme (JDIP) and Major Development Infrastructure Programme (MDIP).
The first was funded by the Chinese Government through the China Exim Bank to the tune of US$400 million and implemented by China Harbour Engineering Company. Projects completed under JDIP include the construction of the Christiana Bypass in Manchester, Rio Grande Bridge in Portland, Cassia Park and Queensborough bridges in St Andrew, Fern Gully road and drainage improvement, as well as the rehabilitation of parish roads and main roads across Jamaica.
MDIP, the successor of JDIP, was estimated to cost US$350 million. Under the programme, the National Works Agency — which manages construction projects on behalf of the Government — identified some 700 kilometres of roads in need of urgent intervention, bridges requiring reconstruction or rehabilitation, retaining walls that had been damaged to be reconstructed.
Upon introducing MDIP in 2013, the Government noted, "The Jamaica economy relies heavily on road transport for passenger and freight movement. Although a large percentage of these roads have been improved over time, it is recognised that they were never originally constructed to modern engineering standards...The absence of proper road profiles and drainage facilities have taken their toll over the years and the resulting condition of much of the network, particularly the tertiary roads, can be regarded as ranging from poor to very poor."
As of 2018, Jamaica had over 15,000 kilometres of roadways, which, according to Jamaica Productivity Centre Administrative Manager Collette Barham, "is considerable for a country of its size, and the value of this investment over the decades has been likewise".
Still, the Government will continue to invest in the rehabilitation, expansion and development of sections of the local road network in its push to reduce traffic congestion. In his budgetary presentation in March, Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke announced a $4.7-billion budgetary allocation to the maintenance and repair of roads for this fiscal year, 2023/24.
From the allocation, the Government intends to spend $1.2 billion on the development and construction and $610 million on the rehabilitation of farm roads. This does not include the ongoing completion of the May Pen to Willamsfield Bypass and the 15-kilometre Montego Bay Bypass set to begin this fiscal year.
Additionally, Clarke announced the commencement of the $40-billion islandwide Shared Prosperity through Accelerated Improvement to our Road Network (SPARK) Programme, which will be executed over a three-year period.
"The SPARK Programme is part of the Government's multipronged strategy to respond to the decades of underinvestment in our nation's roads, improve road safety, and catalyse economic growth by restoring badly deteriorated public infrastructure. The road network is the backbone of our economy, connecting businesses, industries, and individuals across the country. However, decades of underinvestment have taken a toll on our roads, resulting in poor road conditions, traffic congestion, and road accidents," the minister told Parliament earlier this year.
However, while the Government seems intent on resolving Jamaica's traffic problem by increasing its spend on expanding roads and adding new ones, the Jamaica Economy Panel has cautioned that this approach will not be the panacea for traffic congestion. Instead, the group points to Braess' paradox which theorises that adding more roads can slow traffic flow.
In 2014, Apurva Sanghi, who was at the time the World Bank's lead economist for Kenya, Rwanda and Eritrea, wrote in an World Economic Forum blog post: "...the problem with this approach is the 'more you build, the more they'll come'. Traffic congestion eases temporarily and it is only a matter of time before more vehicles are added to the road to offset this initial easing."
To this end the JEP calls for an integrated transportation system plan and adequate traffic management systems.
Under the Vision 2030 Transport Sector Plan, traffic management is one of the main focuses of reducing congestion and improving cohesion in the local transport sector. Additionally, the finance minister also revealed that $943 million from this year's budget allocation has been set aside for traffic management and control.
"Traffic congestion may result from a number of causes including volumes of traffic too high for road capacity, road obstructions and inefficient traffic management systems, and is characterised by slower speeds, longer trip times, and increased queueing. The negative effects of traffic congestion include the loss of productive time of motorists and passengers, increased air pollution and vehicular wear and tear, and interference with passage of emergency vehicles," the Transport Sector Plan states.
It adds:, including: use of more efficient traffic management techniques; junction improvements; promotion of higher vehicle occupancy; parking restrictions; intelligent transportation systems; and flexible work and school hours to reduce peak traffic flows.
To address the issue of traffic management, the Vision 2030 Transport Sector outlines two solutions: 1) develop driver feedback and intelligent roads and 2) improve flow of traffic in urban centres.
Strategies proposed in the plan to develop driver feedback and intelligent roads include implementing real-time broadcast of traffic data and routing to alleviate congestion, implementing the Intelligent Transportation System, and establishing a linkage with traffic technology developers worldwide.
To improve flow of traffic in urban centres, one of the deliverables of the plan is to "institute appropriate traffic management measures to reduce traffic congestion in critical areas, including intersection redesign, one-way traffic systems, traffic calming, [and] pedestrianisation".
The move to improve traffic management is consistent with recommendations from an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study, titled 'Infrastructure for Development: How to improve the road network in Jamaica.'
"The idea to support the creation of a Traffic Management Centre came about after a visit to a small office," the report states.
"The Road Improvement Programme team was visiting public agencies and institutions to gather information when they came across a small MTW (Ministry of Transport and Works) office where a handful of employees were using a laptop and a system of cameras to monitor a few intersections in Kingston, Jamaica's capital. Despite the operation's small size, the team members saw an opportunity. This makeshift system, expanded and fortified, could have a big impact on the roadways," it continues.
According to the IDB, the GOJ had already carried out feasibility studies on managing certain intersections and had plans to connect a series of traffic lights with the aim of controlling them from a central hub. Since these plans are in alignment with the IDB's objectives, the bank incorporated them into its Road Improvement Programme.
Up to the time of the IDB report, the Traffic Management Centre was collecting images from 14 cameras, controlling 16 traffic lights and used a "hyperwall" — a video wall developed by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration — that allows them to obtain, display, and analyse data to develop and implement interventions and policies.
A similar project was undertaken in the Chinese metropolis of the greater Hanzhou area, using the artificial intelligence-powered Hangzhou City Brain to constantly monitor and manage the flow of traffic by making adjustments to traffic lights and signage in response to real-time needs. Since its implementation, Hanzhou has fallen from being China's fifth most congested areas to 57th.
Another aim outlined in the Vision 2030 Transport Development Plan to reduce traffic congestion is promoting the use of public transportation. In the regard, the Government said it will seek to:
• Develop and implement public education programmes on the economic, social and environmental benefits of public transport;
• Increase attractiveness, comfort and efficiency of public transport system; and
• Provide disincentives for private vehicle use (eg parking fees, congestion pricing entrance fees)
However, one study suggests that the Government's efforts to promote public transportation could be undermined by the informality in the sector, particularly in Kingston Metropolitan Area.
Acknowledging that there are still challenges in creating opportunities for additional modes of land transport, the Vision 2030 Transport Sector Plan also proposes the reintroduction of a mass transit train system. This suggestion continues to weigh in the balance due to a lack of public-private partnership to support the venture.
"There are efforts underway to amend the Jamaican Railway Corporation Act, 1960 to make adequate provision for the privatisation of railway operations. A number of entities have expressed an interest in revitalising the railway but, to date, public passenger and freight services have not been restored," the plan states.