Why Can't Jakarta Build a Road?

One day a month or two ago, work suddenly and mysteriously ceased on a crucial 3.4 km throughway linking congested Central Jakarta to equally congested Kampung Melayu in East Jakarta. In a city regularly listed as being among the world's 10 worst for traffic, the elevated piece of road is supposed to make things a little easier.

The roadway has been under construction since late 2010, snarling traffic and creating various road delays in the process. The end - and relief -  seemed near. But it wasn't until a newspaper reporter saw that work had stopped that anybody in the government bothered to tell the public what was going on. The company doing the job pulled back because it was no longer being paid by the city. But like many things here, it is not all that simple.

Jakarta Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama said the city administration stopped payment with the crucial road link 90 percent complete to order a government audit. Basuki wondered why the road, which was started under the previous administration that left office in 2012, wasn't already finished. "I just want to check to see if the project has any indication of default," he said.

The state-owned construction company doing the work, Istaka Karya, said the city made a mess by not disbursing additional funds; the city says funding for the Rp840 billion (US$86.4 million) project was supposed to end in December and that there is no budget for the road in 2013. City officials say additional funding can't be released without an audit.

But yet another official, Sarwo Handayani, chief of the Jakarta Development Planning Agency, told a local newspaper that there is still funding to complete the road. "It is impossible that the continuation of the project was not budgeted in the City Budget. We certainly budgeted it. But let me check again," she said.

Basuki said Istaka Karya decided to put the project on hold, not the city administration, telling reporters that the contractor "maybe ran out of money." The contractor says it has until June to complete the contract.

"It may very well be that an audit is a good idea but it shows the difficulty the new Jokowi administration faces in getting things done," said a western consultant. "To stop this flyover in the middle of the city, prolonging the traffic misery because they cut off the funds, I fail to see how that helps ease possible irregularities. It still has to be finished."

To say the connector is crucial is an understatement - it will allow thousands of cars an hour to pass above a road called Jalan Casablanca that is already overflowing with shopping malls and is barely passable. A similar overpass in the south of the city begun about the same time opened several months ago. Indonesia and Jakarta may be booming economically but life is getting worse daily on the streets of a metropolitan area with more than 25 million people that aspires to international status.

New Jakarta Governor Joko "Jokowi" Widodo vowed to clean up the traffic situation when he came into office in September - as did his predecessor Fauzi Bowo during the five years of his term. The World Bank, the governor and others have predicted total gridlock for the city as early as 2014 if something isn't done. Mass transit projects are discussed but delayed and new interior roads like the stalled flyover are rarely built, despite developers being allowed to throw up one megamall after another with no supporting infrastructure.

As Indonesia has continued to prosper, with gross domestic product expanding at an average 5.4 percent over a decade, and rising to 6.10 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, cars and motorcycles have expanded right along with GDP. It is estimated that 200 new cars are sold in Jakarta every day, along with 1,000 new motorbikes. Public transport is sparse, crowded and unreliable. It takes anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours to get to work. The number of new vehicles is increasing by 11.26 percent every year, according to the traffic department, while the number of new roads has only increased by 0.01 percent - in effect, zero.

Police say that 20.7 million people enter and leave the city daily - 56.8 percent of them in their own vehicles. When the government banned cars with fewer than three passengers from a few key roads at rush hours that just created a whole new class of low-level entrepreneur - "jockeys" who stand along the roadways with their fingers out indicating they are willing to ride to the driver's destination for the equivalent of about one US dollar.

Back at the road there is a tantalizing small gap just waiting for the roadbed to be lifted into place by one of the now-silent cranes. The City Council has called on the administration to immediately pay the additional Rp 24 billion needed to resume construction, demanding that the roadway be completed as soon as possible.

"The longer the city administration holds back on the payment, the longer the public will have to wait for construction of the elevated road to be finished," a councilman told the Jakarta Globe, blaming red tape for the refusal to disburse funds. He faulted Governor Joko for failing to make good on his campaign promise to streamline the bureaucracy.

Kasman Muhammad, president director of Istaka Karya, told the news portal Vivanews.com: "I actually predicted the funds would be disbursed in March," adding that the company could not speed up construction due to the limited budget and lack of workers.

Kasman said the company's employees stopped working because they were not convinced that the city would disburse any more funds.

"Up to present, we have Rp 24 billion [$2.5 million] in arrears for workers' salaries in the project construction," he told Vivanews, adding that the city administration had stopped disbursing funds in January.

Meanwhile, it's a Friday evening and traffic is stuck in virtually every direction in Jakarta. It is what they call here "macet total" - a total traffic jam. If you happen to be in your car or on a crowded bus on such an evening you have plenty of time to think about why it has to be like this.