Earlier this week, a barge crashed into the Demerara Harbour Bridge (DHB), putting it out of operation for over 36 hours. Thousands of commuters, including school children who normally use the facility, were left with no choice but to use water taxis at the old ferry stellings at Vreed-en-Hoop and Georgetown. Chaos ensued and worsened by the fact that the accident occurred on the first day of the new school term.
This is not the first time the bridge has been rammed by an oceangoing vessel, resulting in much inconvenience to commuters. From the vivid images of this latest incident, both stellings were overwhelmed by the sheer number of commuters offering another reminder of the need for more effective contingency plans.
The initial official notice, reportedly from the Management of the DHB about the accident, as brief as it was, seemed to lack any consideration of inconvenience to commuters. To just say “closed until further notice”, can possibly convey a sense of being insensitive to concerns. While it would not have made a difference to the repair timeline, noting that management is working around the clock to carry out necessary repairs to minimise the inconvenience, could be seen as a bit more considerate.
That may be deemed as insignificant and a casualty of expediency at the time; however, the lack of capacity and intolerable conditions, especially at the Georgetown end, to access the water taxis were very significant.
There is no disputing the very high volume of commuters and vehicles that cross the DHB on a daily basis, with traffic build-up on both ends bringing much frustration to all. The unusual easy flow of traffic on the East Bank Public Road on Monday and most of Tuesday puts into perspective the volume of vehicles that traverse the DHB from the west side.
From all reports, in Georgetown, commuters were crammed in multiple lines which stretched a long distance. With numbers overwhelming the available boats, commuters had to wait for lengthy periods. Part of that wait was in the old, hot stelling with infrastructure seemingly incapable of handling such volume and major concerns for safety.
While some commendable measures were put in place, including Police presence, barricades, extension of the deadline for the boats to traverse the river and an ambulance for medical emergencies, there have been many similar incidents in the past that offered experience to establish a friendlier environment at the Georgetown Stelling. Reportedly, it was only sometime in the evening that another access point to the water taxis was opened up there.
That could have been done much earlier to help mitigate the challenges faced. Also, there were reports of vehicles not being allowed from the Vreed-en-Hoop junction to the stelling there. That’s a fairly onerous walk especially for children, the sick and pensioners. Reportedly, that decision was taken to avoid vehicles parking around the stelling. While there may be good reasons for that, disruption of the DHB creates an abnormal situation.
Consideration could have therefore been given to have the Police presence in the vicinity of the stelling to facilitate drop-offs and to ensure no one violates the suspected parking restriction. That simple change in operation would have eased the burdens of many forced to walk that distance.
Such interventions would constitute a simple component of a more detailed and effective contingency plan to deal with disruption in operations of the DHB and to mitigate historic challenges. It’s not about who didn’t do what, but what must be done— done in a timely manner to safeguard the welfare of commuters.
It would be interesting to know if any assessment was done on capacity and safety levels of the Georgetown Stelling area used to access the water taxis. People must travel for work and school primarily, regardless of the mechanism. The Government has the responsibility to ensure those mechanisms are safe. The experience of those who reportedly fainted must not be ignored but be used as indicators help improve the infrastructure.
Equally important, is the movement of food, critical medical supplies and patients who must access services in the city. Additionally, there is an added cost to many who have to divert and use the water taxis.
This latest disruption was just over 36 hours, as light vehicles are now accommodated and the DHB crews that worked around the clock must be commended. However, in a scenario where the disruption could be more extensive, what plans are in place to ensure a far less challenging commute, the supply of goods and services and the minimising of additional financial burdens?
Any national contingency plan has to be holistic to cater for various situation. One, in addition to the DHB, is the alternative route for East Bank Demerara. With no option before Eccles and beyond Providence, commuters have been stranded for hours following accidents and even fires.
Four years and over into the tenure of the APNU/AFC government, the bypass road is still unrealised, despite vehement promises. Should that be taken as a lack of concern for the urgently needed alternative route? If so, optimism for an effective national contingency plan continues to wane.