A few months ago I was so incensed at not having any water for two weeks straight that I made up my mind to vote against the government that was making my life miserable. But we issue voters are a fickle lot. And having had a more or less regular water supply since then, my anger has cooled down. Not that this makes me any more inclined to vote PNP – after all regular water is something major town dwellers at least surely have a right to expect. But the burning urge to vote against the party in power has died down. (Though water has recently begun to go off at nights again and my neighbours and I are once again grumbling anti-government sentiments to each other every morning.)


Anyway I did a fair bit of driving last month and was quite surprised at how my feelings toward the powers that be shifted depending on where I was. On my journey from Mandeville to Kingston for instance I was singing the praises of the Old Harbour bypass. In a way it has changed my lifestyle. For what was a few months ago a weary two and a half hour stop and start trek has become a zippy hour and a half breeze – though there are still clogged up spots such as the Spanish Town bypass that need to be worked on. And I can honestly say that primarily because of this I have been to Kingston more times in the past three months than in the previous three years. You have to give praise where praise is due, so respect to all those involved in so significantly improving my quality of life.


If only traveling in the rest of Jamaica was such a joy. And as usual on the latter part of my journey from Mandeville to Montego Bay I found myself frenetically dodging potholes and cursing whoever allowed these roads to deteriorate so badly. The endless winding from Middle Quarters on is bad enough, but the pitted roads make what should be a merely uncomfortable trip an exhausting and aggravating one.


Going from Mandeville to Ocho Rios is even worse, and I cannot believe voters in the constituencies between Spauldings and Runaway Bay could ever re-elect any government MP’s. You can hardly travel a hundred yards at normal speed and have to constantly brake for fear of ruining your front end in another huge pothole or trench. I used to travel this route regularly about ten years back and it has worsened dramatically. Indeed Brown’s Town must have the worst roads of any significantly sized town in the country, as there is not a ten foot stretch unpunctuated by bumps and holes. How do its residents’ tolerate this state if affairs?


The journey from Montego Bay to Negril was not merely potholed riddled however, and essentially felt like an extended drive in a gravel pit. What should be a pleasant one hour drive is instead – and has been for nearly five years – three hours of torture by automobile. And my anger gradually dissolved into amazement. For Negril is the crown jewel of Jamaican tourism, and every visitor coming from the Montego Bay airport has to travel this route. Its appalling condition not only wastes an incredible amount of man hours, but also severely tarnishes visitors’ holiday experience. For instead of enjoying a lovely scenic prelude and epilogue to their sea and sun idyll, Negril tourists begin and end their vacation in prolonged and irritating discomfort. So pathetic is the situation that there is now a postcard showing a mini-bus on the “gravel pit" with the caption "I survived the drive to Negril". Naturally it’s a bestseller.


This debacle must easily cost the country hundreds of millions of US dollars annually in lost goodwill alone. How could anyone connected to the tourist industry or even the finance ministry could have allowed this state of affairs to endure indefinitely? Is it that all our government officials are so used to traveling in helicopters and four wheel drive SUV luxury that they have become completely unaware of how uncomfortable this and so many other roads are for normal people? Doesn’t any member of government realize that allowing things to remain as they are is like flushing huge sums of money down the toilet every day? In terms of direct and indirect lost revenue this must surely be one of the most glaring wastages of tax payers’ money Jamaica has ever witnessed.


What makes it all even more astonishing is that the road from Negril to Savannah la Mar is as smooth and bumpless a stretch as will be found in the island. When you consider the disparity in economic importance between the route from Negril to Sav and from Negril to Mobay, this surely speaks of a gross misapplication of public resources.


Of course this so called “first phase of the North Coast Highway” has been a fiasco ever since the contract was awarded to Bosung, who bid far less than anyone else thought was reasonable. Begun in 1997 it has missed completion deadlines of December 1999, August 2000, and December 2001. Now essentially taken over by the government, the project will undoubtedly end up costing far more than if it had been given to a proven contractor. Minister Bobby Pickersgill recently claimed that the reported reducing of its asphalt thickness would not lead to the road deteriorating in five years instead of the planned ten. But after all the previous broken promises, who believes anything the government says about this project anymore? And at this rate, if we are lucky, phase 2 will be finished in 2007 and phase 3 in 2012 - just in time to start over on phase 1.


In a recent Observer interview the Prime Minister “intimated that as soon as the North Coast Highway between Montego Bay and Negril was completed then the general election should not be far away. Mr. Patterson affirmed that he had given strict instructions to the contractors to stick to the stated deadline as he had no intention of flying the gate until that project was satisfactorily completed.”


Now why did Mr. Patterson not give “strict instructions” years ago? Was he not bothered by the lost revenues every day of incompletion was costing the nation? Or did he view the project mainly in terms not of its concrete value to the country but its election winning ability if unveiled at the right moment?


Right now I feel neither the PNP or JLP deserves my ballot in the coming election, and my choice may well depend on the last journey I make before voting. If it’s Mandeville to Kingston it might be the head. If it’s to Ochi or Mobay it might not. But after five years of a gravel pit, driving on a smooth road from Mobay to Negril right before elections would definitely make me ring the bell in anger. As a voter nothing infuriates me more than being taken for a fool.

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