Jul 11, 2013

    Mega-bridge challenge for Yudhoyono

    FOR Mr Aat Djunaidi, a 12-hour wait to catch a ferry linking Indonesia's most populous islands isn't so bad. On some trips, the 41-year-old waits for two days before his lorry can cross the Sunda Strait from Java to Sumatra.

    "If they build a bridge, it would take just 20 minutes to cross," said Mr Djunaidi, who makes the journey three times a week to transport Suzuki motorcycles, while waiting at the back of a 4km-long queue. "I'd be happy if I get to use the bridge in my lifetime."

    Indonesia will soon decide whether to proceed with what would be the world's largest suspension bridge, according to Mr Luky Eko Wuryanto, a deputy minister overseeing infrastructure projects.

    First conceived half a century ago, the planned 29km link that would cost an estimated US$15 billion (S$19 billion) has spawned a debate over the best way to reduce logistic costs in a country with more than 17,000 islands and 250 million people.

    While advocates say the bridge will bring new investment to South-east Asia's biggest economy, detractors see it as a liability that could jeopardise economic gains that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made since taking office in 2004.

    "He wants to leave these tangible, physical legacies, and the bridge is clearly one of them," said Dr Hal Hill, a professor of South-east Asia economies at Australian National University in Canberra who advises the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

    "The real worry - and, in fact, the likelihood, I think - is that this bridge would become a white elephant. It would not just be costly, but it would also blow up Indonesia's well-deserved achievement of macroeconomic stability."

    Dr Yudhoyono has seen Indonesia's rating raised to investment grade since 2011, as economic-growth rates exceeded 4 per cent during the global financial crisis.

    Last month, he raised fuel prices to cut an annual subsidy bill of more than US$20 billion that is sapping funds needed for roads and bridges that could propel the economy towards his goal of 9 per cent annual growth.

    The plan for a bridge linking Java and Sumatra dates back to 1960, when Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, put it in a national development plan.

    After decades with little progress, the project was revived in 2004 in part by the Artha Graha Network, a conglomerate owned by Mr Tomy Winata.

    Dr Yudhoyono threw his support behind the Sunda Strait Bridge during his first term in office. But wrangling over how best to conduct a feasibility study has stalled things since 2011.

    Even if the progress of the bridge moves towards a feasibility study, drivers like Mr Djunaidi don't have much faith in final approval coming any time soon.

    Mr Tuki, who has been driving lorries across Indonesia since the 1970s and like many Indonesians uses one name, said life would stay the same.

    "Presidents come and go, but nothing really changes," the 61-year-old said, as he prepared to roll his lorry onto a ferry after queuing for seven hours. "We'll still be waiting."