Thika Superhigway Is About Posterity
A few weeks ago, the MP for Lugari, Cyrus Jirongo, was reported to have said that the Nairobi-Thika superhighway was a monument to the influence of Central province’s vested interests. His specific explanation was that there was really no need for a road that wide; and that if indeed it had been narrower, some of the money saved could have been used to build more roads in other parts of the country. At least, such is my recollection.
To many in Central Kenya, these remarks had more than a whiff of Kikuyu-bashing. It was remembered that one of the key planks of the opposition ODM party in the 2007 election had been that Central Kenya had benefited disproportionately from the first five years of the Kibaki administration. And given how that election turned out, it was only to be expected that any fresh claims that Central Kenya had received more than its fair share of government projects would be interpreted as ‘hate speech’.
But it seems to me a more charitable explanation is possible. I suspect what really happened is that Jirongo did what all of us do: he mistakenly applied his personal experience to a situation which was actually very different. Many will know that Jirongo rose to prominence as a property developer with excellent State House connections during the Moi era. Now the mindset of any property developer is to build in direct relation to the immediate demands of the market.
There is not a single developer in Nairobi right now, who plans to see his apartment block or his rows of maisonettes remain empty for even a day, if he can help it. But when it comes to public infrastructure — roads railways, bridges, hydroelectric dams, sewage disposal systems, power supplies, piped water, ports, airports, etc — a totally different logic applies.
In this case, serious planners do not only consider immediate requirements. They mostly consider what the needs will be in the next decade and beyond. This is because, unless you are building new infrastructure from scratch, a good part of the costs of a large infrastructure project, goes into relocation of what already exists. Consider the said Thika superhighway: before construction of the road itself could even begin, a great effort had to be made to relocate power lines, telecommunication cables, water pipes, sewage pipes, and goodness knows what else. This involved ripping up many kilometres of existing public infrastructure and moving it further out, to create room for the road.
Also, the construction, when it finally begun, had to be done bearing in mind the needs of commuters. You cannot just extend a road like the Thika highway, without planning for side roads and diversions to be used by commuters even as you build them a wonderful new road. For all these reasons, you really do not want to keep widening roads every few years or so. It is just too much trouble. In general what you set out to do is to build something which will meet the needs of the public for the next 25 years or so.
And this is why any properly executed public infrastructure project — at the time of completion — will always appear to be larger than what was strictly required. But a road like the Thika highway is not just intended to reduce traffic jams at this time: it should be adequate to the needs that will exist 20 years from now. Indeed, when the original dual carriageway from Nairobi to Thika was built, very likely it created the same impression: that there had really been no urgent need for a road this wide. But two decades later, Thika Road was famous for three-hour traffic jams during the rush hour.
In much the same way, as and when the current expansion of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is complete, it is almost certain that it will appear to have produced an airport much bigger than we really need. But just as certain, two decades later — and assuming we retain our current economic growth rates — Kenyans will probably be wondering why it was not made even bigger.
It is important to understand these things, because the kind of economic progress this country needs, can only be built on a foundation of vastly improved public infrastructure. And when a country has a president who prioritises the creation of such infrastructure, this is not something he should be criticised for. It should actually be cause for the highest praise.
The writer comments on topical issues.