The dream of a Mandeville free of congestionSunday, June 06, 2021
BY GARFIELD MYERS
MANDEVILLE, Manchester — In November 2019, the newly arrived police chief Superintendent Gary Francis identified traffic congestion in this south-central town as being among his immediate priorities.
“What should be a two-to-three-minute drive into the town is a 30-minute journey, on account of the congestion,” Francis complained back then.
Locals know that it's not for want of trying by Francis and his team that — despite what should logically be a slowing down as a result of COVID-19 — the Mandeville town centre remains as congested as it has ever been.
Town elders and other locals say rapid growth in the number of motor vehicles operating in a small space on narrow streets, with little or no parking areas, amid a high concentration of public/private sector service locations, have rendered the situation next to impossible.
The problem is an old one and getting progressively worse.
Back in 2007, as the then eight-year-old Manchester Development Committee received the final draft of the Manchester Sustainable Development Plan for 2030, congestion in Mandeville was already being highlighted as a major difficulty.
“To get rid of traffic in Mandeville...wouldn't that be lovely?” mused then chairman of the development committee, the late Jackie Minott.
Now, 14 years later, current committee Chairman Tony Freckleton is saying, “Enough is enough.”
Not only is traffic and congestion generally a source of extreme frustration and tension for the people of Mandeville, it is seriously undermining production, he argues.
“We can't continue like this… just talking and doing nothing. If we keep doing that, those who come after us are going to ask, quite justifiably, 'What were you doing?' ” Freckleton told the Jamaica Observer.
Like many others in leadership, locally and nationally, Freckleton recognises that all the lofty goals of Jamaica's sustainable development project will not be achieved by 2030, “worse because of COVID”.
But he argues that rather than helplessly throwing hands in the air, planners and implementers should be moving to “pick the low-hanging fruit”, including putting in place measures to address traffic pile-up in the parish capital.
Most far-reaching of all his suggestions, and certain to be controversial, Freckleton is advocating a longer-term project for the relocation of two schools, Manchester High and Mandeville Primary and Junior High. He is proposing a move from their current locations, close to the town centre, to a 500-acre State-owned property at Albion, adjacent to the May Day High School, about a mile south-east of Mandeville.
Too many schools close to the town centre have proven to be a major source of congestion and could become dangerous, says Freckleton.
“What were we thinking when we put 14 schools within 15 minutes walking distance of the market?…You go on school days is like a swarm of humanity. If there is a disaster we are in big trouble…” he said.
He believes an arrangement could be worked out with business interests to have two or more new, modern schools built on the lands at Albion, in return for their commercial development of the 15 acres now occupied by Manchester High and Mandeville Primary and Junior High, worth, in Freckleton's words, “billions of dollars”.
Such an arrangement could also provide space and scope for a modern transportation complex close to the town centre, removing the current challenges of taxis and buses parking illegally and hindering traffic and pedestrians, he said.
Beyond that, Freckleton is concerned that “nothing more” has been heard of plans by the Ministry of Justice to build a new courthouse on Brumalia Road, several hundred metres away from the town centre which would ease much of the traffic and related need for parking.
“It [new courthouse project] seems to be on hold,” Freckleton lamented.
A fire at the historic, more than 200-year-old, courthouse in November 2019 forced the authorities to move trials and other activities from the cramped, old building at the centre of town to rented premises at the James Warehouse Plaza within easy walking distance.
The original proposal was for the old courthouse building — which is a national heritage site and has been under repair since the fire — to be converted to a museum. Twinned to that was a plan for a justice centre, complete with modern courthouse and administrative offices, to be built on 40 acres of land donated decades ago for the purpose by bauxite/alumina company Alpart, at Kingsland, about four miles west of Mandeville.
That plan was eventually 'vetoed' by influential stakeholders in Mandeville who felt the Kingsland property was too far away from the parish capital.
Freckleton, founder of the periodic publication Mandeville Weekly, entrepreneur, and social activist, is now much more optimistic about plans to remove the fire station from the town centre to Brook's Park, a few hundred metres to the north-west. The “paperwork” is now being done for the move to happen, he said. As it is now, the fire station not only hinders traffic in Mandeville, but firefighters can find themselves taking “as much as 20 minutes” to leave the town during an emergency because of gridlock.
He is also pleased that long-awaited traffic changes, which it is hoped will smooth out motor vehicle flow in and around Mandeville, have now been completed, following intense lobbying and representation by his committee and others. “All that's left now is signing off” by the local authorities and securing funds for the traffic changes expected to amount to in excess of $20 million, Freckleton told the Sunday Observer.
It's expected that the changes will include one-way arrangements along a crucial, heavily used corridor, Caledonia Road, as well as an increase in the number of traffic lights to be strategically located.
Freckleton says traffic congestion in Mandeville is just one of myriad challenges facing Manchester in the push to one day become part of a Jamaica that will be “a country of choice to live work and raise families”.
He cites chronic parish-wide water shortage; education; the plotting of a sustainable economic pathway in the aftermath of an ebbing bauxite/alumina industry; environmental degradation, especially caused by bauxite mining and alumina processing; youth unemployment; and the restoration of agriculture to a position of primacy among the issues local leadership must address concurrently.
The key, according to Freckleton, is to start the work. “The longest journey begins with the first step,” he said.