Trinidad and Tobago’s highway project reaches halfway mark

An ambitious highway project that will connect several towns in Trinidad and Tobago to major resource hubs is edging towards the halfway mark, with two sections already operational.

The country’s single largest public works project, the TT$7.5bn ($1.16bn) Solomon Hochoy Highway extension to Point Fortin is expected to boost economic activity by significantly reducing travel time and improving connectivity across the south of the island.

However, progress on the highway has not always been smooth, with challenges − led by land acquisition and compensation issues − contributing to delays and putting an end-of-2015 completion target out of reach. In addition, the decline in oil prices has prompted some concerns about the cost of finishing the project and how potential government spending cuts will impact the building industry.

Despite the concerns, the minister of works and infrastructure, Surujrattan Rambachan, said he was confident that work would be finished by the end of the first quarter of 2016, following an announcement in early March that the project was 45% complete.  

Road to success

The Solomon Hochoy project and the smaller San Fernando-Mayaro highway are seen as crucial to unlocking a range of new economic activities across the country. The Solomon Hochoy extension will connect San Fernando to Point Fortin along a 47-km stretch of roadway, linking up the towns of Debe, Penal, Siparia, Fyzabad, Mon Desir and La Brea along the way.

The highway will also create a faster route between the towns and key hubs, including the industrial centres of San Fernando and Point Fortin, and the capital city, Port of Spain. Rambachan said the project would bolster the planned $850m methanol-to-petrochemicals plant in La Brea, which is due to be completed in 2016. It would also improve access to the University of West Indies (UWI) campus at Debe, and support local fishing communities.

Technically complex, the highway extension, which is being carried out primarily by the Brazilian contractor Construtora OAS, involves the construction of several interchanges, bridges, overpasses and underpasses, with a total of 226 structures to be built.

Construtora OAS’s local superintendent, Rodrigo Ventura, said the work had been divided into segments, with two parts of the highway already open to traffic. Several other segments of the highway are expected to be completed within the year to provide a contiguous stretch of roadway from San Fernando to Point Fortin.

Although it has faced some challenges, which is to be expected in a project of this size, the highway extension is already benefitting the local economy: according to Rambachan, 1571 of the 1690 workers on the project, or 93%, are locals. In addition, OAS has sourced around 80% of materials from local providers, which is double its contractual commitment, said Ventura. 

Local issues

Civil infrastructural work forms a major component of the local construction sector’s activity, supported by home-building, energy-related projects and quarrying.

The construction and quarrying sector accounted for an estimated 5.2% of Trinidad and Tobago’s GDP last year, up from 5.0% in 2013, according to the government, and employed between 80,000 and 90,000 workers. Local companies are strongly represented in the residential segment and small-to-medium-sized projects, while international civil engineering groups have traditionally won the bigger contracts.

However, local contractors remain hesitant about the flow of work following the upcoming general election − likely to be held between May and September − with potential cutbacks in government spending that will impact the building sector.  “There’s no guarantee of new work.  Although the prime minister tried to reassure us... nobody knows which projects will be cut,” Mikey Joseph, president of the Trinidad & Tobago Contractors’ Association, told OBG. “In the large civil infrastructure sector, the government always tends to go the way of foreign contractors. This means that local businesses get less, as sub-contractors,” he added.

While the benefits of a mega-project such as the highway are clear, it has also left the government facing several politically tricky challenges, including environmental opposition from groups such as the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM) as well as lingering issues over land compensation.

Nevertheless, the public has shown itself to be largely supportive of the highway project. In a recent survey, 57% of respondents said they believed it should continue, despite a squeeze on government finances sparked by falling oil prices. With only 30% of those polled believing the work should be stopped, citizens appear to have recognised the longer-term economic benefits that better road infrastructure will provide. 

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