The SSB and SBY’s legacy

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono listens to a presentation regarding the engineering plan of the Sunda strait bridge during an event organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Kemayoran, North Jakarta, on April 15. The bridge is expected to be part of Yudhoyono’s legacy when his term ends in 2014.

The Sunda Strait Bridge (SSB) project has been a dream since the 1950s, when the nation’s first president, Sukarno, first spoke of connecting the nation’s major islands of Sumatra and Java.

Although inspired by a proposal from Sedyatmo, a professor from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), Sukarno never realized the dream of the bridge, nor did his successor Soeharto.

Six decades later, President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono decided to revisit the dream, agreeing to a proposal made by tycoon Tomy Winata for the Rp 100 trillion (US$10.9 billion) SSB project.

Tomy, whose real estate and banking empire was formed using connections with senior Indonesian Military and National Police officers, also has a special relationship with Yudhoyono and members of his inner circle, such as Lt. Gen. (ret.) TB Silalahi and State Secretary Lt. Gen. (ret.) Sudi Silalahi.

Yudhoyono issued a presidential decree in late 2011 for the construction of the bridge, authorizing preferential bidding consideration for Graha Banten Lampung Sejahtera, the consortium led by Tomy that initiated the SSB project.

Ground breaking for the bridge is slated to begin in 2014, just before the end of Yudhoyono’s presidency. Term limits bar the President from seeking a third term.

“The bridge is poised to become Yudhoyono’s legacy,” Democratic Party lawmaker Achsanul Qosasi said. “That’s why every effort is needed to keep things flowing smoothly.”

According to the proposal, the bridge will provide a road and rail connection between Java and Sumatra, relieving pressure on the two seaports that handle most of the passenger and cargo traffic between the islands: Merak Port in Banten to Bakauheni Port in Lampung.

A ferry journey between the ports takes between three and four hours, while a fast-boat ride takes around 45 minutes. However, ferry and fast-boat services are regularly disrupted by high tides, leading to huge backups on both sides of the strait.

Electric trains are expected to cut the transit time across the strait to 30 minutes after construction of the SSB is complete.

Plans call for the bridge to span 29 kilometers — six times the length of the Suramadu Bridge that connects Java and Madura Islands.

According to Coordinating Economic Minister Hatta Rajasa, whose daughter is married to Yudhoyono’s youngest son, the SSB was important for Java, Sumatra and the entire nation.

“Our economy is on the move. However, due to a lack of connectivity in the Sunda Strait region, trucks transiting from Java to Sumatra and vice versa are forced to wait in lines as long as 10 kilometers,” Hatta said.

“Around two million 4-wheel vehicles cross the strait annually. The bridge is very strategic. If it is complete, trucks from Medan [North Sumatra] can traverse the strait easily to transport supplies to as far as the eastern part of the country,” Hatta added.

However, Yudhoyono’s plans to build a bridge may go to nowhere, as the presidential decree authorizing the bridge’s construction would leave the government responsible for a huge financial guarantee, and fails to give the private sector the legal certainties needed to embark on a large scale infrastructure project.

Whether to revise the decree is now under discussion by Yudhoyono’s Cabinet ministers.

Finance Minister Agus Martowardojo has been leading the charge for reconsideration, much to the reported consternation of Hatta and Public Works Minister Djoko Kirmanto.

The discussions may lead to delays that make it increasingly unlikely that Yudhoyono will be in office when the ground is finally broken on the project.

Graha Banten Lampung Sejahtera currently has less than 18 months to complete a feasibility study, the start of which has been delayed pending the government’s decision on whether to have an independent third party make the study or to leave the consortium to do so.

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