Bread and highways

I miss Jack Warner and Louis Lee Singh’s 2012 West Port of Spain traffic plan. Do you?

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A scheme that had me whizzing to work during rush hour in 20 minutes. It was one of the most effective and impressive public solutions to a problem I’ve ever witnessed in Trinidad & Tobago. Not only did it achieve its core goal or relieving traffic congestion for those of us living west of the City. But almost every collateral traffic issue that arose from its implementation was swiftly met with a solution—whether proposed or implemented, fully or only partially effective.

dual carriagewayOld people and schoolchildren fraid they get knocked down crossing the Avenue?
—We saw traffic lights go up—and into use—at record speed.

Roxy roundabout bottleneck? —We’ve got a fix for that.

Public transportation now leaving people a third of a mile away from their St. James schools and businesses on hotsun and rainy season mornings?
—One eastbound morning-rush lane through St. James for taxis only—coming soon.

We joked at our suspicion that some firetruck corruption allowed this marvellous efficiency. But oh the joy, the flow of the road.

warner mobbed 02And that was precisely Jack’s success and popularity. Indeed, his charm. Jack convinced us all that the effectiveness, the service, the generosity you could count on him for outweighed any slight aversion of the gaze to other accountabilities. The foreday morning lines of non-constituents at his constituency office said that clearest.

LICENSING-02-pg10The cost of efficiency is a measure of corruption. That’s the same institutional principle at work in the hands being greased outside Licensing Office every day. Over a half-century of independence we have eagerly kept intact the colonial bureaucracy and ritual designed to provide make-work for the post-plantation masses and to simultaneously gatekeep ordinary people out of whatever is valuable. They are still fulfilling their original purpose of inefficiency and anti-customer orientation. In the last two years, we’ve slipped from fourth-to-last to third-to-last for customer orientation on the Global Competitiveness Index, outranked only by Burundi, Chad, Haiti and Mauritania. Systems aren’t designed to work. A handful of people with privilege or relationships are facilitated. And now an industry of “facilitation” has sprung up for the rest of us. Printers get unplugged to drive up the demand.

jilp.jpegIt wasn’t only service that Jack provided the nation. Jack’s new political party also provided hope for young men and women running for local government seats of an opportunity for importance and status that the various networks and gatekeepers in the PNM and UNC did not. And an imagination they could follow in his footsteps to achievement.

As for the traffic plan, the idea seemed quite simple. The core principle was to speed traffic through-flow on the two major main roads through Port of Spain to West Trinidad—Ariapita Avenue; and Tragarete Road-into-Western Main Road—by limiting on-ramps to them, and making each thoroughfare run in one direction only: the Avenue ran eastbound, Tragarete and Western Main Roads westbound.

And it worked. I’m sure fuel consumption and emissions were reduced. I know my happiness and productivity were both buoyed.

Efficiency has other costs, though, which Trinbagonians seem less willing to bear. It requires putting some interests—including the public interest—ahead of others.

The traffic plan was spectacular in another regard: as an example of top-down governance. Jack and Louis seemed to adhere to the principle that consultation is a recipe for non-implementation. The plan’s impacts on Woodbrook and St. James businesses and residents were substantial. And their opposition was likewise one of the most impressive displays of public selfishness I’ve ever witnessed in Trinidad & Tobago. It ultimately led to the plan’s collapse, with the South Port of Spain Member of Parliament and other PNM oppositionists campaigning door to door to undo it. And Jack pulled it all up, painted over the white lines.

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One of the emblematic soundbites of Woodbrook antagonism to the plan was Jacqueline Patisserie proprietor Grant Chin’s line “I am now selling bread on a freeway.”

I recall that phrase with bitterness every time I prepare to get into an exit or merge lane during the evening rush going west—only to find it obstructed by a rack of Coelho bread.

As the meltdown of national order rings out in the gunfire across Enterprise, all of us—especially today’s Oppositional parliamentarians—are called on to revisit our petty reluctance to give up anything for the public good. We are also faced with the looming reality that, with institutional dysfunction so hardwired into governance, the only short-term plan that will rid us of violent crime may be as heavy-handed as the one that freed the West of traffic.

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Somebody tell Gabriel Phillip I want to tell his story.

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