An official drives a motorcycle during an inspection at a new toll road Salatiga-Bawen section in Salatiga, Central Java province, Indonesia June 8, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto/Aloysius Jarot Nugroho via Reuters
An official drives a motorcycle during an inspection at a new toll road Salatiga-Bawen section in Salatiga, Central Java province, Indonesia June 8, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto/Aloysius Jarot Nugroho via Reuters

While the focus in Jakarta is on the showpiece mass-rail transit systems now transforming the capital’s skyline, the Trans-Java Highway — a project of potentially much greater economic significance — is still far from completion nearly four decades after it first began.

The 1,167-kilometer, four-lane tollway will eventually link Merak in the west to Banyuwangi in the east, the two ferry-crossing towns on either end of the world’s most populous island, home to 141 million of Indonesia’s 260 million people.

Despite President Joko Widodo’s urging – and 600 kilometers of highway already opened across the country under his watch – officials concede that barely half of the Trans-Java Highway is fully operational, 400 kilometers remains under construction and the rest is still subject to land issues.

Clearly, the project will miss its latest 2019 completion deadline and while the progress made so far has helped ease traffic conditions, the millions of Indonesians flocking to their home villages next week as part of the annual post-Ramadan migration can expect many frustrating hours on the road.

Mudik, as it is known, will see more than 30 million Indonesians on the move at one time, most of them on Java. In cars, on motorcycles and aboard public transport, their exodus out of Jakarta leaves the city virtually deserted for nearly a full work week.

The 14 hours this writer recently spent driving from Jakarta to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second biggest city, showed that after a smooth exit through the capital’s eastern suburbs, motorists still face long stretches along the northern coast where critical gaps remain in the highway of dreams.

A new stretch of the Trans-Java Highway, June 2018. Photo: John McBeth

Surabaya is well served with a newly-opened 76 kilometer tollroad from Kertosono in the west, but heading south towards Banyuwangi, the Trans-Java Highway peters out at Sidoarjo, scene of the infamous Lapindo mud volcano, with no evidence of any new road-building for the remaining 250 kilometers.

That’s another seven hours, through teak forests and coastal towns and past the giant 5,000-megawatt Paiton power complex and coal-handling terminal, one of the largest in the world, which supplies electricity to Jakarta and West Java along a southern transmission line.

Whether Widodo, the man already being dubbed the “Infrastructure President”, is around for the official opening of the historic link won’t rest on him winning a second term in next April’s election but rather on how much of a priority the project is given by his new administration.

A visionary in many ways, former President Suharto ensured Indonesia was the first country in the developing world – and the first in Asia — to operate its own domestic satellite system with the launch of Palapa A1 from the Kennedy Space Center in 1976.

Strange, then, that land links never seemed to be a major priority the way it has been in Thailand where, admittedly unencumbered by a population density of 940 people per square kilometer as in Java, eight-lane motorways crisscross the kingdom.

Indonesia’s Dutch colonial government recognized its importance in the early 1800s, building what became known as the Great Post Road along the length of Java’s northern coast, which cost the lives of more than 12,000 indentured Indonesian workers.

Much of the existing North Coast Road generally follows that route, but the Trans-Java tollway cuts a new parallel path, turning south near the Central Java province capital of Semarang and then heading east from Solo to Surabaya.

Then Indonesian President Suharto riding a Harley-Davidson side-car with then Research and Technology Minister BJ Habibie at the Maerdeka Palace in Jakarta. Photo: AFP/Agus Lolong

The Suharto government built the first phase of the Trans-Java Highway, the 72 kilometer span between Merak and Jakarta, in the early 1980s; with a bridge across the Sunda Strait still in the future, the link was always important to handle the heavy traffic between Java and Sumatra.

But that left the rest of Java, with trucks taking three days or more to navigate narrow, crowded roads on the journey from East and Central Java to Jakarta, adding at least 30% to logistics costs and impacting on the competitiveness of domestic goods.

Critics have claimed that converting 655,000 hectares of arable land for the road — and the inevitable urban development that follows — threatens national food security. Java currently supplies more than 50% of the country’s rice and other staples.

But despite the laying of a second rail track between Jakarta and Surabaya, the Trans-Java Highway remains a critical element of Indonesia’s land infrastructure backbone in a country where 70% of freight is carried by road.

Still relying heavily on its natural resources, Indonesia is not a formidable trader like Thailand and Vietnam. But Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok is Indonesia’s busiest seaport, handling more than 50% of its trans-shipment cargo traffic.

Few wanted to admit it in later years, but under Suharto’s heavy-handed, military-backed regime, land acquisition was never a problem when it came to public infrastructure – or golf courses for that matter.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo poses with a Royal Enfield motorbike during a visit to Pelabuhan Ratu beach, Sukabumi, Indonesia, April 8, 2018. Photo: Antara Foto/Puspa Perwitasari via Reuters

The country’s first toll road, linking east Jakarta to Bogor in 1978, didn’t face any obstacles with the leather-clad Suharto making a ritual of climbing aboard his Harley Davidson Softail motorcycle every Friday for a personal inspection of progress.

Even when the principle of eminent domain was introduced under the 2012 Property Law, it could not be applied retroactively and was never rigidly enforced anyway, which meant the long-delayed process of building the Trans-Java Highway has continued to drag on.

Now, with mudik approaching, the Public Works Ministry promises the highway can “accommodate” the exodus out of Jakarta, but that will mean having to open one 40 kilometer section between the Central Java towns of Pejagan and Pemalang before the toll gates have been installed.

Even then, motorists are confronted by the usual 120 kilometer slog through and past the crowded towns of Tegal and Pekalongan before diverting around Semarang and re-joining a picturesque, 60 kilometer section of the highway, which ends far too quickly at the highland resort town of Salatiga.

Over the past year, the government’s focus on infrastructure has shifted perceptibly to improving the quality of Indonesia’s deplorable education system and other social development and price stabilization programs that are more likely to attract votes.

Where that leaves the future of the Trans-Java Highway is unclear, but after spending US$1 billion on one 116-kilometer stretch alone – and a lot of political capital — future governments will feel they have little choice but to get the job done. For Widodo, Indonesia’s first everyman president, it would be his crowning achievement.