Delivering improved transport connectivity

Delivering improved transport connectivity

As seen in the report “Trinidad and Tobago: Powering to the next level distributed with USA TODAY

Trinidad and Tobago is investing in its airports, sea ports, roads and ferries to strengthen links between the islands and to ensure  the country remains a hub for logistics. In the following interview, Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of Works and Transport, Rohan Sinanan, explains how serious investment in infrastructure will make the country even more accessible.


You became Minister of Works and Transport in August 2020, what have been some of your biggest challenges and greatest achievements since taking office?

When I came into office, the country was facing a collapse in the price of oil and gas, so it was a very challenging situation. We had several major projects ongoing and we had promised the country we would improve our infrastructure. So as a ministry, our challenges were how we restart the construction sector and continue the projects that we have promised the population with minimal financing. 

I think the highlight has been the fact that we were able to start three major highways all at the same time using a competitive tendering process with local contractors. For the first time we had local contractors dominating the whole construction sector. We also introduced a new system where we had the licensing office, courts, police and more on one single platform. 

In addition, we introduced technology to improve the usage of our roads, which brought road fatalities down in 2022 to the lowest figure in 65 years. This was a significant achievement.


What are your plans for land, sea and air transportation in the next 10 years?

The last national transportation plan we had as a country was in 1967, so we championed the need for a new national plan and we got approval from the cabinet for that last year. Coming out of that plan, we will develop a roadmap for connectivity, not only for Trinidad and Tobago but for all the way up the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) islands. 

We are working on the needs of the future and if we have to assist some of the other CARICOM countries as well then it is to the benefit of the region. The whole idea of infrastructure is to bring everybody together and to facilitate trade. There are discussions taking place with regional heads to come up with a solution for inter-island travel. We are working with them to see how we can get that program going so trade, especially the agriculture sector’s products, can move from island to island. It’s easier to get from some of the islands to Trinidad and from there to Guyana than it is to go straight from those islands to Guyana, for example. That’s why we play a key role in how trade is facilitated between the islands and the continent. 


What are the highest priority projects with an allocation of public funds?

Right now, we are working on a major infrastructure upgrade of the entire road network from several aspects. One is to create a new highway grid around the country. We have a major highway program underway in the south of Trinidad and we are hoping to have this completed later this year. 

Secondly, we have another major highway construction in the east and we are building some bridges down in the west of that island. In fact, we have four major road upgrades happening right now that will link all the points in Trinidad by a highway network. 


What investments is your ministry implementing to maintain Trinidad and Tobago as a regional and global logistics hub and what opportunities are there for international investors in your infrastructure plan?

We work hard to make sure that Piarco International Airport is recognized as one of the top airports in the Caribbean and we are now in the process of rebuilding Tobago’s airport. We are hoping to complete that some time next year. In terms of the port infrastructure, we are in the process of implementing a public-private partnership in the Port of Spain. We are working with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to put out a request for proposal because the location of the port is quite attractive for regional trade. 

However, we do have to spend a lot of money on the infrastructure to expand the port, so we are working with the IDB to secure a PPP program for operating its international port facilities. Furthermore, we are in the process of sending out an RFP for investment in a major dry-dock facility. My ministry was recently given responsibility for the Caridoc facilities at Chaguaramas, which is one of our major dockyards in Trinidad. We are now responsible for implementing an upgrade program for that and we will be looking to secure a PPP with interested parties that want to come and partner with us to get that operational. 

Finally, we also have the pitch lake — the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world. Only three exist globally, this is the largest and we are looking for a partner to develop that site.


A bold new roadmap

As explained by Sinanan, the leveling up of infrastructure is helping to positively shape the country’s future. And this covers everything from airports and ports, to road construction projects and inter-island ferries. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago has invested heavily in recent years as it bids to bring its infrastructure up to speed and boost economic growth. The work has already been underway for a number of years, but the outline came in 2018 when the Caribbean nation announced its pioneering plans for the future under Vision 2030. The 15-year framework placed a huge emphasis on quality infrastructure and transportation, with $62.5 million handed to the Ministry of Works and Transport that year to continue the expansion of its infrastructure works program. 

While work began in many areas, the global pandemic that hit in early 2020 led to the delay and suspension of numerous projects, as bringing building materials and goods into the country presented a severe challenge. However, that did not prevent the country from delivering on its promise to improve its transport infrastructure and capabilities. “When I first took office, we had the challenge of a major collapse on the sea bridge between Trinidad and Tobago,” says Sinanan. “That happened within the first month and we had to deal with it as it threatened connectivity between the two islands. We were able, for the first time, to bring in new custom-built vessels and now we have a first-class sea bridge.” The new sea bridge came in the form of two new passenger ferries, the APT James and Buccoo Reef. The high-speed aluminum catamarans can carry 926 and 995 passengers respectively, and can complete the 97-mile journey in around three hours. Improving links between the two islands has been high on the agenda for a number of years, with the idea of constructing a bridge first discussed in the 1990s. 

While this ultimately failed to come to fruition, the Ministry of Works and Transport is looking to build a port in Toco — the most northeasterly village in Trinidad and the closest point to the sister island of Tobago. “We are looking at a more domestic port in Toco, which will link Trinidad and Tobago,” says Sinanan. “The reason being that, right now, to get to Tobago from Trinidad you go around the island. If you go to the two closest points it’s about one third the distance. That project is at the early stages because you have the statutory requirements, like the reefs and other important factors, that have to be taken into consideration.”


The importance of ports 

It is no surprise that there has been an emphasis on ports, with maritime transport dating back more than 100 years on the islands. The two container ports, the larger Port of Port of Spain (PPOS) and the Port of Point Lisas — both located in Trinidad — have long held great significance and are vital to the economy. PPOS is ideally positioned to service the major sea lanes between the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean. It also has trading links between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Panama Canal. Due to the local population relying heavily on PPOS container terminal’s operations for vital goods, the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago has continually invested in ensuring it has state-of-the-art equipment. 

Similarly, the Point Lisas Industrial Port Development Corporation (PLIPDECO), the owner and landlord of the 862.6-hectare Point Lisas Industrial Estate that is focused on the energy sector, has ensured that the Port of Point Lisas is evolving with the times. “We’re trying to reposition ourselves not just as a port operator, but as a logistics services provider,” explains Ashley Taylor, PLIPDECO’s president. “The port was developed to capitalize on the country’s natural gas and support activities on our industrial estate, which has made it one of the world’s largest exporters of methanol and ammonia. As the estate matured, the port has morphed into a general facility that handles a substantial amount of the continuous cargo as well as goods like break-bulk cargo, steel and lumber,” he adds. 

Some of that cargo has played a crucial role in improving the road network throughout the country, which was in dire need of attention, especially after the storms in 2018 that caused widespread flooding across close to 80% of the islands. Most recently, construction began on an extension of Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway in Trinidad. The project involves building a four-lane highway that runs for 29 miles from San Fernando to Point Fortin — thus further improving connectivity between the north and south of the island. 

Furthermore, the Ministry for Works and Transport has also been tackling the problems that came with unprecedented rainfall. New projects have had to assess the potential of larger volumes of water and new roads and bridges are being built to mitigate the effects of flooding. “Coming out of the rainy season last year we had a lot of landslips taking place, so we have some aggressive infrastructure programs this financial year and the next to get that rectified,” reveals Sinanan. 


Preparing for more visitors

Perhaps the most important development currently taking shape within the country is the expansion of ANR Robinson International Airport at Crown Point, Tobago. The government has allocated $200 million for the construction of a new terminal and associated facilities during the 2023 fiscal year, with the aim of creating an international airport with sufficient capacity to support tourism development and air travel in Tobago. 

The Airports Authority of Trinidad and
Tobago will also receive a sum of  $31.7 million to continue upgrades in infrastructure and
security works as the country aims to attract an increasing number of visitors in the years
to come. While Trinidad and Tobago has a much more diversified economy than many of its Caribbean peers, some of which rely heavily on tourism, there is growing interest in the country as an eco-tourism destination — hence the continued improvement in infrastructure to ensure visitors can easily navigate between the two islands. 

Continuing to look to the future, the country is working with the Development Bank of Latin America to plan and develop the first new national transportation plan in more than 50 years. The plan will guide the country over the next 20 years and will not only develop connectivity in Trinidad and Tobago, but also with other CARICOM Islands.  The long-term vision is that Trinidad and Tobago will play a crucial role in the future of inter-island travel in the Caribbean and, by building a strong infrastructure when it comes to land, sea and air, the economy will go from strength to strength.