By Ousman Gajigo, Ph.D., FAO, Rome, Italy
The beginning of the construction of the TransGambia Bridge heralded one of the major infrastructural developments in The Gambia as it marks the first time that a bridge would span the whole length of The River Gambia. Despite this important milestone, there have been some isolated questions raised about its implications for The Gambia. For instance, fears have been expressed as to whether the bridge would obstruct future river transportation; or whether the economic benefits of the bridge are worth the cost in terms of jobs lost in ferry operations?
The first reason why this bridge is an unambiguous benefit to the country is that it is essentially provided free. When completed, the TransGambia Bridge will be 942 meters long, costing about EUR 75 million. The funding for the bridge was provided by the AfDB, along with other bilateral and multilateral donors. Senegal and The Gambia incur only a small fraction of the cost, their combined share of the cost being less than 1%. In addition, the funding comes mainly (94%) through grants, which means virtually no fiscal burden on the two countries.
The fear that the bridge would obstruct future river transportation is overblown. The bridge would be a cantilever design allowing for enough vertical clearance, as well as between its main supports. Specifically, the two main supports of the bridge would be 70 meters wide and the bridge will have a minimum clearance of about 16.5 meters high. The resulting dimension would be sufficiently large for any vessel capable of cruising up river. In other words, any boat large enough to be obstructed by the bridge would be too big to sail upriver anyway even in the absence of the bridge. Hence, there is no danger that the bridge would obstruct future river transportation.
Another concern that is frequently expressed is that the bridge may displace some economic activity such as ferry operations and associated employment. This is not an insignificant concern as The Gambia Ports Authority (GPA) has about 60 employees in the Yellitendan-Bambatenda crossing, where the bridge would be located. Fortunately, the cost of redeploying these workers to other ferry crossing points has already been included in the cost of the bridge, as well as the cost of compensating those whose employment will be terminated. The compensation to the owners of the few rice fields that would be affected by the road leading to the bridge have also been accounted for. In other words, the relatively minor physical and economic displacements caused by the construction of the bridge are adequately compensated. It should be noted that consultations with all affected individuals and communities have taken place well before construction commenced.
The fact of the matter is that even if the bridge project had not included the above compensations, its construction would still have been justified. The scale of the time savings from having a bridge across River Gambia is hard to appreciate but nonetheless highly significant. A simple 1km stretch frequently requires hours of waiting before one crosses, leading to countless lost opportunities.
For businesses, this means tremendous amount of inefficiencies in terms of delays and high transaction costs. These costs are ultimately passed on to Gambian consumers in terms of higher prices and low quality goods and services. For instance, some trucks (both Gambian and Senegalese) spend up to two weeks waiting to cross, leading to loss of perishable goods, with untold impact on businesses, their employees and consumers. A lot of the economic costs are invisible. For example, the high cost of crossing the ferry suppresses numerous business opportunities. These economic costs are largely invisible to us since the inefficient ferry crossing makes their existence impossible in the first place. Other social costs are equally lamentable. It is a frequent occurrence to see ambulances waiting to cross, delays which undoubtedly contributed to avoidable cases of mortality.
Furthermore, since the ferries do not operate at night, all transportation services between the North and South Banks of the country effectively shut down for almost 12 hours daily. One way of appreciating this is to imagine the economic impact of the existence of a ferry-based river crossing between Brikama and Serekunda. That simple exercise is enough to understand the scale of lost opportunities resulting from the lack of a bridge on The River Gambia. This barrier prevents economic integration within the country, resulting in market fragmentation and significant price differentials that are costly.
With the construction of the bridge therefore, a significant boost in economic activity can be expected. Bridges on the scale of TransGambia can be expected to see a traffic boost of up to 50%. This would mean a high boon to the corridor along the TransGambia Highway, particularly to the provincial towns of Farafenni and Soma. This would include the elimination of price differences in locations across the North Bank that are mainly attributable to transportation costs. The resulting economic activity and employment generation would be more than enough to compensate for any possible loss of employment from GPA Ferry operations. In fact, tax revenue generation from greater economic activities would more than offset any lost ferry fees. Parenthetically, ferry operations are a money-losing service for the GPA (hence a net fiscal burden) since the ferries are quite old and consume excessive amounts of fuel and break down with high frequencies. Patients on the South Bank needing to reach the Farafenni hospital at night can do so without wasting precious hours waiting for the ferry the following morning.
A frequent red-herring in this debate is that the benefit of the bridge may be greater for Senegal than The Gambia. Even if that were true (and obviously not), this point is irrelevant. The economic and social benefits of the bridge to The Gambia alone are sufficient to justify its construction, irrespective of the degree of its benefits to Senegal.
Moreover, the benefits to Senegal are an added bonus to The Gambia precisely because the reality of Gambia’s geography (amid Senegal) ensures that benefits to Senegal cannot bypass us. Furthermore, as a small country, the advantages of greater economic integration with the Senegalese economy far outweigh any drawbacks. Therefore, to the extent that the TransGambia Bridge will promote greater economic integration both within and between the two countries, amply justifies its construction.