What a mess greeted air travelers to Jakarta last Thursday when for the third time in the past six months the toll road to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport became impassable because of tidal flooding.
What a shameful scene for our visitors, including Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates who was on a two-day visit, with airline passengers -- businesspeople and tourists -- forced to hitch a lift on heavy trucks to pass the flooded section of the Sedyatmo toll road.
This only inflicted more damage to our stepped up promotional campaign for Visit Indonesia Year 2008.
Last November, access to the airport was interrupted due to flooding, and early in February the airport was closed for almost 12 hours due to flooding caused by heavy rain and high tides. The inundation brought much of Jakarta to a standstill for nearly three days and forced thousands to abandon their cars and homes.
Many foreign visitors who were stuck in the gridlock for hours probably made a mental note never again to visit Indonesia during the rainy season, and alerted friends and relatives to do the same.
"Memo to self: do not visit Jakarta in the rainy season again," wrote Hong Kong-based economist Jim Walker in a note to clients after he was stuck in traffic for nine hours in early February trying to get to Jakarta's airport, a trip that usually takes no more than one hour.
The Singapore Straits Times quoted Walker, the head of independent research firm CLSA, as observing: "Today's traffic problems are an apt metaphor for Indonesia: Stuck in first gear with long periods of sitting around waiting for the jam to clear. The country is stuck with lousy leadership, weak institutions and below-potential growth."
We usually suffer from heavy flooding during the rainy season, between December and February. But last week's tidal flood reminded us of how uncertain our climatic conditions have become and how severely damaged our environment is due to decades of reckless exploitation of our natural resources.
Ironically, the flooding on the toll road took place as the Toll Road Regulatory Body was approving a proposal by state-owned tollway operator PT Jasa Marga to raise the tolls on the Sedyatmo toll road by 12.50 percent.
More confusing was that while newspaper front pages on Friday screamed of the havoc on the airport toll road, the business pages of some newspapers headlined the 1,300 percent increase in the net profit of Jasa Marga for the first quarter.
Something appears grossly amiss here. The ridiculously large profit booked by Jasa Marga seems to reflect the government's attitude in treating such basic infrastructure as freeways, airports and seaports as profit centers.
But common economic sense dictates that the government should instead treat toll roads primarily as basic infrastructure to support economic activities. Certainly, Jasa Marga should not be allowed to lose money because that is not sustainable. But neither should the company be tasked with making as big a profit as possible. Rather, it should be managed simply as an efficient, self-financing entity with reasonable income to meet its operating costs and investment needs.
The government pricing policy for toll roads should balance the interest of operators and consumers, addressing the issues of efficiency in service delivery and the quality of and availability of freeways, providing the toll road operator with an opportunity to earn a reasonable return on its investment.
Efficient roads are a prerequisite for developing efficient supply chains, which are so important for attracting foreign investors. Foreign investors will be willing to establish production networks in Indonesia only if the country can become a reliable part of the global supply chain.
The key to being linked with the global supply chain is adequate and efficient basic infrastructure, including road networks.
The biggest benefit derived from freeways is not the direct profits from their core operations but from a smooth, efficient flow of goods, which will contribute to strengthening the overall competitiveness of the economy.