Outlook: Construction, Engineering & Transportation

By Sheldon Waithe

As three significant pillars that point to the progress, status and capacity of any nation, Construction, Engineering and Transportation stretch way beyond their respective sectors, intertwined as they are into almost every facet of society. Trinidad and Tobago, with its deep roots in industrialization can boast of experience and progress within these sectors, in many cases far ahead of its neighbours in the Western Hemisphere. But this does not mean that the country has overcome the challenges or perfected the practices of these pillars, even if – with one eye on diversification and expanding the plans to become one of the major business hubs in the region – the trickle down effects of energy industrialization offers Trinidad and Tobago a distinct advantage.


Construction

Fuelled by the universal staple requirement to provide affordable accommodation via the Housing Development Corporation (HDC), the renovation of existing city centres together with projects under the tenure of State Boards, there are multiple developments across both islands, including:

  • The continued transformation of the Chaguaramas peninsula into a major tourist park
  • The Point Fortin Highway Extension
  • The Curepe Interchange
  • A major redevelopment of the ANR Robinson airport in Tobago

The current government has recognised the need to incorporate all relevant sectors into these projects, citing a willingness to jump-start the industry by partnering with the private sector construction companies, but the latter is awaiting further action on the matter. The current challenges facing the industry include:

  • Within the past 15 years, construction expertise has been imported, especially from China for mega projects
  • The majority of all construction is being carried out by the public sector
  • An increased flow of money out of the country to foreign firms
  • Minimal construction expertise being handed down to locals for future development
  • The construction industry has accounted for only 5% of Trinidad and Tobago’s GDP (2010-2015)

The inevitable contraction that occurred in subsequent years is expected to be reversed in 2018 through to 2020. In January 2018, Prime Minister Dr. The Honourable Keith Rowley was in a position to state to the Joint Consultative Council for the Construction Industry (JCC) that “Our collective circumstances have improved significantly” while announcing the said projects. If these also incorporate the private sector, then the predicted marginal growth will continue in line with the Ministry of Finance’s predictions.


Engineering

The four divisions under the engineering umbrella – civil, chemical, electrical, mechanical – have been directly affected by the economic slowdown of Trinidad and Tobago’s economy; equally, they stand to gain directly from their required input into the prospective projects announced by government as well as global upsurge trends. The sizeable number of chemical engineers in the country is a direct result of 50 plus years of energy production and with the slight increase in oil prices, there is some sustainability and now, opportunity:

  • Export of expertise that offers new opportunities for the Chemical side, in particular the emerging energy sector of Guyana
  • Mechanical and civil engineers required for the urban development proposals together with the major expansion of transportation facilities
  • Civil engineers will hold oversight on indirect items of any project such as environment and health effects
  • Engineering expertise can contribute to long-neglected areas such as flood alleviation, in turn diversifying the local economy

The recognition for the sector’s 21st century role by the Prime Minister was reflected in the same JCC address: “There is a regularisation process underway to address amendments to existing Acts and the introduction of Bills. The aim here is to strengthen some of the key professions to the construction industry, specifically engineers.” They have been earmarked for their capacity to contribute, the size of which will be determined by the growth and investment in the construction sector.


Transportation

There is little coincidence that the proposed investment into transport related projects for the immediate and mid-term future of Trinidad and Tobago, represents the crucial hub that brings together local and foreign investment, expertise, employment and the prospect for real growth in the construction industry. Together with the aforementioned highway projects, the government has also mandated:

This in turn opens up the underdeveloped eastern side of Trinidad but also seeks to address the long-standing issue of inadequate ferry transportation between the two islands.

  • Short term, the government has purchased a new ferry to complement the existing two, whose age and maintenance requirements have led to the travel woes for the public and a negative impact upon Tobago’s economy between 2017 and early 2018.
  • The air bridge can handle some of the shortfall in service but the importance of a permanent and superior solution prompted the purchase of the new ferry and the exploration of buying another from Australia.
  • Two new ferries will prove a boon to a Tobago tourism sector that is still recovering from the sea bridge struggles
  • The government-operated service will need to ensure the highest standards of maintenance are implemented and adhered to, or perhaps look to privatise the process
  • The pursuit of the Rapid Rail project is on hiatus
  • The environmental and financial investment of such a mega project are considerable. Alternatives have been explored, including a bus rapid transit system similar to Colombia’s oft-hailed TransMilenio.
  • While more readily implementable, questions will arise as to its effect upon the existing Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC) or indeed whether it will fall under their purview.

There is the definite need to address the traffic issue, away from the simple expansion of highways (that will lead to overheating the already overpopulated roads), with the integration of an effective strategy that links urban development with transport development for an all-encompassing holistic result, for the long term.

The shoots of recovery in these sectors are evident for 2018 to 2020, the management of which will be crucial to long-term sustainability.

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