“Not an easy Road!”- Jamaica’s Southern Coastal Highway Improvement Project


Workmen paving the surface of a section of the Harbour View main road in St. Andrew.

Jamaica’s Southern Coastal Highway Improvement Project, SCHIP, is being touted as the country’s largest integrated road infrastructure project.

The multi-billion dollar investment is being implemented by the Andrew Holness-led government, under the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation with co-funding from the China Exim Bank. 

The project commenced in January 2017, and is slated to be completed in the first quarter of 2025. 

The flagship project is being executed in three tranches: Part A – May Pen to Williamsfield; Part B (ii) – Harbour View to Yallahs Bridge; and Part B (iii and iv) – Yallahs Bridge to Port Antonio and Morant Bay to Cedar Valley.

The objective is to enhance the alignment and capacity of the existing southern coastal main arterial road, making it safer and more efficient for motorists to traverse.

However, Part B (ii) – Harbour View to Yallahs Bridge of the project has been characterized by inordinate delays, poor community relations and a dust nuisance that has made life almost unbearable for residents of several communities, especially those living closest to the work site.

Residents have been angered by the poor state and maintenance of the temporary roadway created to facilitate commuting. They’ve also been upset by the inconsistency with which the work site has been watered. They view the development project not as a boon for the various communities that facilitate its path, but as a nuisance imposed on them by an uncaring government.

This leg of the project spans three parishes; St. Andrew, St. Thomas and Portland. It traverses the communities of Harbour View, Bull Bay, Albion and Yallahs.

Google Earth Map showing the southern coastal arterial of SCHIP.

An estimated 14,000 vehicles traverse the thoroughfare daily.

The infrastructure work will facilitate the widening of the roadway from single-lane to dual-lane traffic with a jersey barrier, in addition to addressing major flooding and drainage issues.

This will allow for the improvement of water supply, sewer services and the laying of internet cables.

The government anticipates that the Harbour View to Yallahs Bridge leg of the project will be substantially completed by the end of August 2023.

It is a very ambitious goal, given the delays the project has encountered.

Delays to SCHIP

Workmen paving a section of the Harbour View main road in St. Andrew.

Frustrations reached boiling point on July 10, 2023 after broken water mains caused a massive traffic jam for commuters in Seven Miles.

Ricardo Brooks, host of Nationwide This Morning on the Nationwide News Network, was among those in the traffic jam. He called in to Cliff Hughes Online, hosted by Cliff Hughes, Emmy award winning journalist and Nationwide CEO, to describe the scene. Mr. Brooks said a break in water mains along the project corridor, caused a massive traffic snarl which trapped motorists for several hours.

Ricardo Brooks speaking on Cliff Hughes Online
Traffic congestion heading into Kingston from 11 Miles Bull Bay.

One commuter, who identified himself as Mr. Harper, also called in, delivering a scathing critique of the work being carried out. 

“This is a waste of everybody’s time. This is not how you fix a road. I am not an engineer but no engineer can tell me that this is a way to fix a road. This can’t be!”

Mr. Harper said when compared to the construction of Part A of the project in Manchester and Clarendon, the difference was night and day.

“I go to Mandeville. When I go to Melrose, you realize they are doing the same thing at Melrose. Converting from two to four lanes at Melrose. You don’t have this problem on the Melrose. Why do we have it in St. Thomas?”

Mr. Harper blamed the poor quality of the road’s construction on the contractors not caring about those affected.

“Because the people don’t care about us! The National Works Agency, everybody needs to be made redundant and sent home to do something else cause dem don’t have nuh use! How can you allow this to continuously happen for two and a half years? Two and a half years we have been suffering like this. We don’t have any roads!”

Mr. Harper speaking on Cliff Hughes Online

The problem caused by the broken mains and the backlash from the affected commuters, prompted the direct intervention of the Prime Minister, Andrew Holness. One day after the incident, E.G Hunter, Chief Executive Officer of the National Works Agency, NWA was instructed by the Prime Minister to exert direct supervision of the project to ensure its timely completion.

China Harbour Engineering Company, CHEC, was initially contracted by the NWA to execute the project.

CHEC issued 10 sub-contracts to local companies to complete the road infrastructure programme.

CHEC contractors working along 8 Miles Bull Bay

While acknowledging the challenges of the project at a post cabinet media briefing on July 12, 2023, Mr. Hunter noted that the execution was being done in full compliance with world class standards.

Mr. Hunter noted that the COVID-19 pandemic caused major delays in the completion of the project. He said logistical challenges, including the delayed arrival of material and equipment by ship, exacerbated the problems and scrambled the work timeline.

Months prior to the turning of the tide, residents on the other side of St. Thomas decided to take matters into their own hands in September last year. Scores of residents protested for two days which affected the work of the contractors.

Over in Leith Hall and Amity Hall, residents mounted roadblocks over the state of the road. The two-day protest action disrupted the reopening of schools, impacting both students and teachers. Stephen Shaw, the NWA’s Communications and Customer Services Manager, said threats and intimidation were being meted out to the workers on the site, forcing the contractors to halt plans for further improvement works.

Police and firefighters clearing a roadblock mounted by residents along the Leith Hall main road in St Thomas – Source: The Gleaner

A development of this magnitude made it necessary for the government to demolish existing structures in close proximity to the roadway and acquire lands from citizens.

Among the structures that were bulldozed to make way for the project, were the Bull Bay Health Centre in 10 Miles and the Bull Bay Police Station which occupied a parcel of land in 9 Miles for 125 years.

The historic 125 year old Bull Bay Police Station was demolished to make way for the Southern Coastal Highway. The station had been standing on the spot in 9 Miles Bull Bay since the 1800s. The Jamaica Constabulary Force said the station was built with packed stones and boasted a stone cut finish. A modern police station will be constructed on a site nearby.

According to the NWA, 255 structures have been demolished so far and 51 have been modified.

Nationwide News spoke to several residents from communities along the path of the road construction project. Some say that while the highway is much needed, the road to get there has proven to be an obstacle course.

Many of those who spoke with us wished to remain anonymous over what they say is fear of retribution from the government for expressing their concerns.

At our first stop, an elderly resident of Stellar Road in Harbour View was optimistic about SCHIP. According to the resident, the pains of the infrastructure project will be worth the end result. She said she was immensely proud of the ongoing development after years of hearing empty promises for a new highway for the parish.

But, another female resident was angry at the suffering unleashed on the people by the project. She said since the construction of the highway began, her community has been impacted by dust and flooding from heavy rains. She said drains are constantly clogged which causes water to overflow onto the roads in the community, making them impassable.

A shop owner who identified himself only as I-I, opened his establishment in 8 Miles in January this year. He said the dust nuisance is overwhelming at times. He said the wetting of the road was not being done properly, leaving residents to battle the clouds of dust which greet them daily along the stretch. 

Shop Owner in 8 Miles Bull Bay, St. Andrew
Business Owner, I-I speaking with Nationwide News

Another resident who has lived in the 8 Miles area for over 50 years, Anthony Ellis, complained about what he says is an uncaring government. He says the conditions of the road make for a hazardous journey to Kingston. 

“The road mash up yuh vehicle… some a di time, a morning time, all three [or] four hours. From 9 Mile to [8 Mile] all four hours! You lef out 7:00 [to get to] town, yuh nah reach a town til’ all 9:30, 10:00!” he said.

Resident, Anthony Miller speaking with Nationwide News

A taxi operator known as Sammo, who uses the busy thoroughfare daily said he’s forced to repair his vehicle weekly due to the terrible condition of the road.

“Almost every week mi affi change front end parts. Last week mi change two a mi ball joint and now presently mi affi change dem again,” he said.

He pointed out that the roadway is filled with hazardous objects which carry no warning signs or barriers.

“Sand, they just dump up ina di road, even a few weeks ago, I accidentally ran on a iron pipe that they had in the road with no protective barrier around it. It damage my door, tear off mi front bumper, and there’s no one to compensate me for that, it’s a struggle,” Sammo told Nationwide News.

He noted that the traffic congestion causes massive delays. 

“Fi complete a one kilometer or two kilometer it woulda tek yuh all forty minutes to half an hour time. Even every morning coming from St. Thomas, the traffic in Yallahs and Seven Miles Eight Miles area terrible. You have to wait all thirty minutes in traffic…if you have work 7 o’ clock or 7:30 just prepare to leave out by 5 o’ clock because if 6 o’clock ketch you and you just a leave out  just know you have a half an hour to forty minutes probably to a hour of traffic dealing with,” he said.

He doesn’t believe work on the Harbor View to Yallahs stretch of the project will be finished in time to meet the August 31 deadline. 

Meanwhile, a resident of Mezgar Gardens said community members have no intention to vote in the next general election as they feel the government has shown no interest in the impact the road construction works are having on their lives.

The woman, who has been living in the community for 42 years, said the highway project has had a negative effect on the health of babies in the community. She said the ill effects manifest in the form of rashes, fever and sinus infections. The resident said her grandmother was also severely affected, having to do eye surgery due to partial blindness from the dust. She expressed that while she appreciated the new highway, the work to get it completed has done more harm than good.

Residents were not the only ones to complain about the project. Several workers contracted to work on the highway criticized aspects of the project.

We spoke to one Jamaican worker named Andre, a supervisor on the project.

Andre said while the job provided employment for several men in the community, there was also an obvious downside.

He said he begins his shift at 6:30AM daily and ends at 3:30am the following morning. He said this gives him limited time to spend with his family, especially his children. Andre, along with his colleagues, also bemoaned the pay scale for workers.

Andre said the men are now in a rush to meet the August 23 deadline to complete the road from Harbour View to Yallahs. The workers said they were also heavily affected by the dust from the marl used on the road. They said water to drench the highway and alleviate the dust problem was being delivered inconsistently.

Workman, Andre speaking with Nationwide News

“It’s a nightmare!” – JET

The Chief Executive Officer of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), Dr. Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie, pulled no punches in her assessment of the progress of work.

“I think that one word that could be used to summarize the impacts of this road construction and the impact it has had on the environment and the people – because the environment could include people – would be ‘nightmare’. Nightmare because when we look at the way in which the project has been approached, another word could be ‘haphazard’. It just appears almost haphazard,” Dr. Rodriguez-Moodie said.

In an article in the Jamaica Gleaner on February 26, 2023 she urged the government to regain control of the country’s Air Quality Regulations and Standards by fast tracking amendments.

The JET CEO specifically referenced her journey on the unfinished highway en route to Bull Bay, highlighting the grayish film of dust covering the area. She spoke about how pedestrians were attempting to shield themselves from the dust and noted that houses in the immediate path of the roadworks all had their windows shut.

She highlighted a wide range of health issues that could result from long-term exposure to the dust.

“Dust in the law is considered a nuisance but it really has a significant health impact. When we talk about these dust particles that can cause the sinuses, the lung issues and even the very fine particles that are involved that can cause even further damage to your organs, to your heart, resulting in some long-lasting health issues. 

“So it’s not just a nuisance that people must just grin and bear and live with. Some of these things are going to probably persist for a long time,” Dr. Rodriguez-Moodie told Nationwide News.

She also criticized the lack of wetting done to the roads.

While being cognisant of the ongoing drought in Jamaica, the JET CEO says even before the dry spell began, the watering schedule was a joke.

In October 2017, CL Environment Company Limited, a project consultant of SCHIP, submitted an environmental impact assessment of the highway project.

On page 279 of the assessment, a list of ways in which dust could be limited were presented.

The assessment recommended, among other things, dampening the areas within 4-6 hour intervals, adding further that these dampening activities should be increased on hotter days.

Dr. Rodriguez-Moodie cited the assessment’s suggestions saying the environmental regulators needed to step up and ensure the suggestions were being properly followed by the contractors.

“The end is near!’ – Prime Minister Andrew Holness

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Andrew Holness refuted claims that the protracted nature of the project is the result of an uncaring government.

Speaking at the commissioning of a concrete pavement solution in McDonald Place, in his West Central St. Andrew constituency, in July, Prime Minister Holness said that narrative was the furthest from the truth.

He said the people will benefit from better water supply, better internet, better roads, greater economic possibilities and housing solutions.

Prime Minister Holness conceded that more could be done to ensure that dust is controlled and that people are allowed better and safer access to their properties.

He acknowledged that attempts were being made to address the inconveniences people were experiencing. However, the Prime Minister said the efforts being made by the contractors were inconsistent.

Following a meeting with Chen Daojiang, the Ambassador of China to Jamaica, Mr. Holness said he expects that there will be greater speed in the completion of the project.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness
Prime Minister Andrew Holness

The projected end of  the SCHIP is March 2025.

Residents within the vicinity of the highway project do believe life will significantly improve once the highway is complete. However with all the delays and hardships encountered by residents as the highway continues to be built, one must ask:

Will the new road prove to be a cross worth carrying for the affected residents? 

Only time will tell. 

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