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The Indonesian and Malaysian governments are jointly proposing to spend RMB15 billion (US$4.5 billion) to build 17.5 km tunnel that could well be a passageway to nowhere by two governments that can hardly afford it
Plans, still in the development stage, have been mooted to construct the tunnel to link the small Indonesian island of Karimun in the Sumatran province of Riau with Kukup, a Malaysian fishing town located 69 km away from Johor Bahru, the capital of Johor.
On the Malaysian side, Kukup makes a certain amount of sense. Although it is a small fishing town, it is in fact a strategic site as other major cities including Johor Bahru, Melaka, Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Singapore are not too far away and are served with relatively good highway connections that link them to Kukup.
However, on the Indonesian side Pulau Karimun, with Tanjung Balai as its largest town, is not similarly strategic as its population is only around 175,000. Tanjung Balai is neither a major city nor a tourist destination and is distant from other main Indonesian cities like Jakarta, Semarang, Pekanbaru, Medan, Palembang and Padang. It isn’t served with a good network of expressways or bridges connecting it with these other cities.
The proposed plan would only be practically viable if it connects Kukup with another major city or cities in Indonesia, particularly Jakarta – more than 1,000km away while Medan, Sumatra’s largest, is situated approximately 700kms away from Pulau Karimun.
The Johor-Riau Link
Following criticisms against a wildly expensive Strait of Malacca Bridge, the tunnel plan has been put forward as a more viable option to link Malaysia and Indonesia. Unlike the Strait of Malacca Bridge, estimated to cost around RM44.3 billion, this project is said to be more cost-effective and viable.
Construction would take to five years and would be the first undersea link to connect two countries in the region. The tunnel is not a stand-alone link as it would be complemented by a number of proposed bridges connecting Pulau Karimun and the islands in the Riau province all the way to Kuala Kampar on the island of Sumatra that would stretch as far as 69 km.
The construction wouldn’t disrupt the traffic flow of transiting vessels in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore which at the moment accommodates more than 70,000 vessel movements per year. This tunnel would facilitate economic growth of both Malaysia and Indonesia as the Riau province does not only possess large oil and natural gas reserves, it is also home to the biggest palm oil plantations in Indonesia, some of which are owned by Malaysian companies.
It is not entirely clear whether the proposed undersea link is a railway or a road tunnel. However, given that the Malaysian railroad network does not cover Kukup and that rail service is not available in Pulau Karimun, the 17.5km link may likely be in the form of a road tunnel.
A Tunnel Without a Destination?
The construction of this tunnel may spark a number of controversial issues, the biggest of which is whether it could really foster any economic benefit. Would the level of cost involved in constructing the tunnel be justified by subsequent usage? The cost would result in high debt liabilities for both Malaysia and Indonesia which would be passed on to tunnel users in higher tolls.
This article first appeared on www.asiasentinel.com
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