by Larry Smith
It's not often that professional critics like Tough Call feel the need to offer kudos to those in office.
After all, they can draw on the multiple resources of the state (including a $2.5 million-a-year "information service") to stroke themselves. And hopefully, the constructive criticism contained in this column is at least partly responsible for moving things along.
However, in the case of the Montagu foreshore we intend to make a big exception. Frankly, it was easy to believe that this multi-dimensional problem would never be effectively addressed by any government. A horrifying thought.
That dread feeling was appropriately boiled down in this quote from Dr Kathleen Sullivan Sealey, a University of Miami marine biologist who lives in Montagu Heights and has been studying Nassau harbour and other marine areas of the Bahamas for many years.
"if we can't fix the Montagu ramp," she said incredulously, "we can't fix anything in this country."
Well, it has taken more than 20 years, and a lot of handwringing and behind the scenes effort, but finally the multiplicity of issues affecting the Montagu foreshore are being addressed. The response is not perfect, but a brief look at the record is instructive - and credit should be given where it is due.
"The Montagu shoreline is one of the few open spaces left on this island. But despite its use by inner city families, cookout vendors, sailing enthusiasts and pleasure boaters, over the years it has been allowed to degenerate into a monstrous public health and safety hazard.
The beach has all but disappeared due to man-made erosion, and the inappropriately placed seawall has to be rebuilt at great expense every few years. The complex intersection is a traffic and pedestrian safety hazard, And there is a significant public health threat from pollution caused by garbage, oil and fuel discharges, human and animal waste, sewerage and storm water runoff.
Despite the stench and the garbage, the ramshackle market is visited by confused tourists and people who stop their vehicles without warning to chat or park. Trailers block the road during rush hours, leading to miles of daily traffic jams and endless frustration for the 50,000 people living out east.
The 1960s-vintage ramp was never meant for commercial traffic. The market originated in the 1970s with one or two casual fishermen hawking their catch to passers-by. But over the last 20 years one of our few recreational areas has been transformed into a public slaughterhouse and commercial boat ramp without the slightest thought and without any remedial action so far."
Fish vendors moved to the ramp in numbers after the closure of Potters Cay in 1991 following an outbreak of conch poisoning. At that time, more than 1,000 people were hospitalized from eating conch infected with bacteria picked up from polluted water around the Paradise Island bridge.
There are now several layers of commerce at the ramp. They include vendors who buy from the fishermen; freelance fish cleaners; and others who capitalize on the traffic by providing produce, ice, phone cards or cigarettes. There are also lunch ladies, and lately some entrepeneurs have set up shop to sell t-shirts and souvenirs.
There is also rising tension between the merchandisers at the marketplace and the jet ski operators who haul and launch their boats from the ramp.
In 2004, with much fanfare, the Christie administration appointed a parliamentary committee to come up with solutions for "the traffic, health, environmental and related problems" at the Montagu ramp. It was led by independent MP Pierre Dupuch, who spent two years looking at the problem.
"Forty years ago," the committee said in its majority report, "there was no traffic jam caused by people buying fish or trailers being backed across the street. And the entrails from the catch of a lone fisherman's family were quickly swept away with the tides. Today, the commercial area has expanded and in a few years the eastern foreshore will be illegally commercial."
The report pointed to the lack of toilet and waste facilities in a popular recreational area, and noted that the site was too small to justify a major investment in public facilities, and that the commercial activities conflicted with the use of the area as a public park. It called for relocating the vendors and banning the sale of fish or other products at the ramp.
Then opposition MP Brent Symonette dissented from the majority report, arguing that the vendors could continue to be accommodated in the area, and that many of the traffic problems could be solved by improvements to the Johnson Road, Fox Hill Road and Blair intersections with the Eastern Road.
However, no action was taken to implement any of these recommendations, so in 2009 a new public/private sector committee was appointed by Montagu MP Loretta Butler-Turner to take another look at the problem.
Their report concluded that the ramp had become a chaotic free-for-all leading to "tension among vendors, dissatisfaction among residents and constituents and risks for recreational users". It called for redevelopment of the entire area as a public park.
That proposal also languished. Initially, Butler-Turner said it would cost millions and could not be covered by the budget, so the government was seeking to break it into more manageable pieces.
But eventually, action was taken. The Ministry of Works began to implement plans to upgrade the Fox Hill, Johnson Road and Blair junctions with the Eastern Road, as well as some reconfiguration of the ramp area itself.
These plans were developed from a traffic study years ago that looked at all intersections from Goodmans Bay to Fox Hill in the context of the multi-million-dollar New Providence Road Improvement Project that is nearing completion.
The Fox Hill junction was completed last year. The Blair and Johnson Road intersections, the reconfiguration of the ramp area, and a new roundabout at the junction of Shirley Street and Eastern Road, will all be completed by early April, insiders say. Two commercial-grade public toilet facilities will also be built to this deadline - one near the fort and one near the ramp.
The existing vendors have all been documented and regularized - they will be accommodated near the old hotel pier. Boat trailers will access the ramp just east of the existing traffic lights, and turning and parking will be on the reclaimed area, off the main road.
Private contractors will be hired to handle solid waste disposal, running water will be available for the first time, and waste from the toilet blocks will be collected in septic tanks.
The reconfiguration of the ramp and the new roundabout is expected to cost some $300,000. The Eastern Road intersections are costed at under $150,000 each. The beach restoration undertaken by Kerzner International was completed at a cost of $1.8 million.
Ultimately, the plan is for the entire area to come under the management of an authority similar to the downtown straw market. These works will mark a major improvement in quality of life on the eastern end of the island - just as the roadworks and Saunders Beach restoration have radically transformed the western district.
This is what governments are supposed to do.
In addition to a massive programme of renewal for the country's physical infrastructure - especially on New Providence - the government is also upgrading our electronic infrastructure.
Just before Christmas I went online and paid my property tax with a credit card and a few clicks of the mouse. I can also pay traffic fines, renew my driver's license and apply for a business license online.
I can do those things because last summer, the Bahamas launched a revamped and expanded e-government online platform - with the help of information communication experts from the government of Singapore.
Over the mid-term, more eServices will be rolled out, including work permit applications and renewals, and payment of Customs duties, passport applications and post office box rentals.
The goal is "to provide best-in-class eServices and increase the country’s ranking to become one of the most attractive countries in the Caribbean to visit, live, work and do business."
According to the 2012 United Nations E-government Survey we still have a long way to go. South Korea is the world leader in this regard followed by the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Denmark, with the United States, Canada, France, Norway, Singapore and Sweden close behind.
In Korea, the government’s main website has developed into an integrated portal where citizens can find almost every service they want, on both a national and local level.
Some developing countries have begun to catch up with higher-income countries - such as Kazakhstan, Chile, Malaysia, Colombia and Cypress. Barbados is the sub-regional leader among Caribbean countries, followed by Antigua and Barbuda and the Bahamas.
But we still rank 65th in world e-government development - out of a total of 159 countries.
The UN survey found that governments "have begun to move from a decentralized single-purpose organization model of e-government to an integrated, unified whole-of-government model for the people. This approach supports the strengthening of institutional linkages with greater efficiency and effectiveness of governance systems; and better public service delivery."
A number of countries around the world (especially the United Kingdom and the United States) have also been opening previously ‘locked-up’ government-held data sets, providing raw data to their citizens. And citizens have actively taken up and made use of these data, the UN report says.
"In this context, freedom of Information (FOI) legislation warrants attention. FOI is an important cornerstone of open data use because the latter can only take place when there is a right to access government information.
In 1990, only 13 countries had adopted FOI laws, whereas there are currently 90 out of 193 UN members (or 48 per cent) that have adopted such laws around the world. The Bahamas is currently in the process of passing its own freedom of information act.