Turkey’s Erdogan, the infrastructure champ

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Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

WITH the signing of the first national budget under the Duterte administration, a P3.35-trillion whopper that ostensibly contains a significant number of plans for infrastructure developments, the President and his economic team might benefit from studying how another noted hardass among world leaders has delivered on his promises of new and improved infrastructure.

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On Tuesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan officially opened a road tunnel under the Bosphorus Strait separating the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. The tunnel, which is called the Avrasya Tunnel, is the first road tunnel and the second tunnel of any sort under the famous strait. It is an impressive feat of engineering as well, featuring an undersea section 3.4 kilometers in length at a depth of 106 meters.

Erdogan, who at the time was Turkey’s premier (he became President in 2014), also inaugurated the first trans-Bosphorus tunnel, the Marmaray Tunnel, in October 2013. It is used by a commuter rail line that is part of Istanbul’s metro system; according to Turkish authorities, the tunnel has transported 172 million passengers so far.

Erdogan, who has basically run the country as a dictator since 2003, refers to projects like the Bosphorus tunnels (the Turkish government may build a third in the next few years) as his “crazy projects,” large-scale undertakings that exceed the scope of bureaucratic and public imagination, and directly deal with nagging infrastructure problems. In Turkey’s case, these are chronic road traffic congestion around Istanbul, in part because of the bottleneck created by there being (until recently) only two bridges across the Bosphorus; an international airport that is badly outdated and congested; crowded shipping lanes—again, the Bosphorus presents a significant obstacle – and a lack of alternative access between the European and Asian sides of the country except through already-jammed Istanbul.

Other projects already completed on Erdogan’s watch include the Osman Gazi Bridge opened in June this year, which is the fourth-longest suspension bridge in the world, reaching 2.6 kilometers across the Izmit Gulf (east of Istanbul on the Anatolian side of the Sea of Marmara, in a region that is heavily industrialized). And in August, the delightfully-named Sultan Selim the Grim Bridge opened, the third road bridge across the Bosphorus; it has the distinction of being the world’s widest suspension bridge, with a deck 58.5 meters wide.

Impressive as those projects are, Erdogan has even bigger plans. The Istanbul New Airport will open sometime in early 2018. It is being built some distance from metropolitan Istanbul on the shore of the Black Sea, and is roughly the same scale as the airport in Dubai; Erdogan has said, in fact, that he envisions it becoming a global transit hub rivaling the latter.

In 2023, a project that will dwarf the Bosphorus bridges will (hopefully) be completed, the first bridge across the Dardanelles Strait separating the Gallipoli Peninsula from western Anatolia. While the opening date is understandably a bit uncertain at this point, the starting date for construction is not; Erdogan has already announced the project will get underway in earnest on March 18.

And finally, Erdogan’s most audacious proposal yet looks like it may yet come to life, as the President has announced that project tenders will be made in the coming year: A canal connecting the Sea of Marmara (on the south side of the Bosphorus Strait) to the Black Sea (on the north side), to be called the Canal Istanbul. The plan is to relieve the shipping congestion in the Bosphorus, and is the modern iteration of what has been a popular, though generally regarded as impossible idea for centuries. The canal would be about 50 kilometers in length, located somewhere west of Istanbul, and would be an engineering challenge similar to the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal.

The lesson in what Erdogan has done and is still planning to do with his “crazy projects” for the government here that fancies itself as ushering in a “golden age of infrastructure development” is that Turkey’s President directed development efforts precisely at the worst infrastructure problems his country and its largest city face.

For all the grand projects planned by the Duterte administration, it does not seem that quite the same focus has been applied; while none of the projects listed are unnecessary and all will have benefits, the infrastructure plans that are at least a little more advanced than aspirations at this point are still nipping around the edges of the most serious problems—the critical need for a new airport, a completely new road transport infrastructure to serve Manila’s ports, expansion of Manila’s light rail system by a factor of about 10, the long-planned but stymied Visayas-Mindanao electrical grid interconnection, highway development in Luzon (connecting Metro Manila to the Cagayan Valley) and in Mindanao, and affordable housing for the poorest 2 or 3 million families that account for part of the estimated 5.7-million unit housing backlog.

While he still enjoys a formidable level of public support and has the entire Legislature under his thumb, Duterte, if he actually wants to accomplish something a little more substantial than killing random ne’er-do-wells and offending other world leaders and entire nations, should grab for the brass ring and launch his own “crazy projects,” rather than just stopping at the “crazy” part.

Have a safe and memorable Christmas, everyone.

ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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