The proposed inter-island bridge and basic services

Last Friday the Minister for Finance, Sili Epa Tuioti, revealed plans by the Government to approach the World Bank to consider funding the construction of a sea-crossing bridge linking the islands of Upolu, Manono, Apolima and Salafai.

He said the proposed bridge project is being discussed by the Government and the Bank could be more receptive to the idea this time around, after an attempt four years ago to sell the idea did not gain traction.

“It is worth mentioning that it is about time the Government considered seeking assistance from the World Bank to construct a bridge from Upolu [to] Manono [and] Apolima and Salafai," he said, during last Friday's Parliamentary session.

“This project was considered four years ago, but at that time they [World Bank] were not interested in funding the proposed bridge. That has changed and [at] our meeting last year, with the World Bank and it appeared there is a chance they can fund this huge project.

The Minister further said the World Bank had taken into account Samoa's long-term policy planning document, the 2040 Strategy, when considering the merits of the project anew. 

The construction of bridges in nations around the world can change lives and bring with it benefits to citizens. These could include cutting travel time and improving accessibility to markets to ultimately become economic drivers.

On the flip side, there is the threat of cost that can run into millions in taxpayer funding, due to project delays brought on various factors, or a worse case scenario of the structure failing to impact lives positively and thus becoming a white elephant. 

We note the Minister’s reference to the Samoa 2040 Strategy, which based on the Minister’s speech at the Strategy’s launching in June last year, is a roadmap that encompasses the Government’s vision to transform the Samoan economy to a higher growth path to increase the country’s annual growth rate by 5 per cent, double the rate of formal employment and increase per capita income to $20,000.

Minister Sili’s linking of the proposed sea-crossing bridge to the 2040 Strategy, suggests that the Government believes the 22 kilometers long proposed bridge – which is the distance between the closest points of Upolu and Savai’i islands – will become a major factor behind the success of its 2040 development roadmap.

There is no doubt the bridge project – if the Bank agrees to get on board – will be a complex and fascinating project. If given the greenlight, Samoa could be on the cusp of being the recipient of an engineering marvel, which upon its completion could be the envy of neighbouring island states.

But questions should be asked on whether the country is ready to commit to such a large and complex public works project, which could have a long-term impact on our finances, and add to our growing debt levels if the Bank agrees to give Samoa a loan. 

Therefore, funding a feasibility study into the proposed bridge project, which would look at its cost to taxpayers, its potential impact on the Samoan economy, and the local population, should be the way to go for the Government before a decision is made.

We say this while being cognisant of the cost of similar projects around the world. The world’s longest sea-crossing bridge that links Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau in China is 55 kilometres long, took nine years to build, and cost the Chinese government and its municipal authorities a whopping US$20 billion. 

The length of the proposed Upolu to Savai’i bridge would approximately be half the length of the Chinese bridge. Therefore, would it be safe to say that its overall cost could be half or even less? 

And if a global economic power can muster the financial resources to finance such a project, what are the odds for Samoa with a miniscule economy that remains vulnerable to natural disasters taking on a similar but smaller project?

But then it does not make sense discussing mega public works projects, such as the proposed bridge to link Upolu with Savai’i, with ordinary citizens in rural communities still lacking basic services and yearning for the Government’s assistance and intervention.

With the country and its population recently coming out of a deadly measles epidemic, we would rather our leaders get back to the basics of ensuring institutions of State charged with the responsibility to deliver essential services are working overtime to deliver services such as health, education and utilities such as water supply and electricity.

Have a lovely Friday Samoa and God bless. 

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