Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during a visit to Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project in Jakarta on February 23, 2017. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry
Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during a visit to Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project in Jakarta on February 23, 2017. Photo: AFP / Adek Berry

It has taken five years, caused traffic chaos across an already crowded city and cost US$1.5 billion, but Japanese and Indonesian contractors are finally on the verge of completing the first stage of Jakarta’s pioneering mass rapid transit (MRT) system.

Few people, least of all MRT Jakarta boss William Sabandar, need any reminder of when the service begins: March 31, 2019 — 27 days before the legislative and presidential elections when the so-called “Infrastructure President” Joko Widodo seeks a second term.

Widodo has paid six visits since Sabandar was put in charge of the project in October 2016, when above-ground construction was at a virtual standstill over land acquisition issues. During each visit, the president has had the same question: “Is it on schedule?”

In fact, the MRT is long overdue. Jakarta is the largest city in Asia without a modern rail-based people-mover, with experts predicting total gridlock by 2020 unless commuters can be weaned away from their cars and motorcycles and on to public transport.

The Jakarta municipality already houses 10 million residents, but another four million are estimated to make the daily commute into the city from the sprawling dormitory suburbs of Bogor in the south, Bekasi in the east and Tangerang to the west.

Starting with an initial over-and-under 27-kilometer corridor from the southern suburb of Lebak Bulus to the downtown Hotel Indonesia (HI) Circle, then on to North Jakarta’s historic Kota district, the entire MRT network will eventually cover 108 kilometers when it is finished in 2030.

Sadly, many of the stately trees that once lined Jalan Sudirman, Jakarta’s busy main thoroughfare, have long since gone, the price the “City of Tough Love” has had to pay for the single biggest infrastructure project in its 400-year history.

Engineers and workers are seen in the tunnels of Jakarta's MRT construction project in Jakarta on June 7 2018.Deep below Jakarta's traffic-choked streets, a warren of transit tunnels could prove the key to easing the city's crippling gridlock. / AFP PHOTO / BAY ISMOYO
Engineers and workers are seen in the tunnels of Jakarta’s MRT construction project, June 7, 2018. Deep below Jakarta’s traffic-choked streets, a warren of transit tunnels could prove the key to easing the city’s crippling gridlock. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

Complementing that is the 230-kilometer Transjakarta Busway network, designed for 500,000 passengers a day, and a US$6 billion light rail (LRT) system that will eventually cover 41 kilometers and connect the city center to outlying Bogor, Bekasi and Depok.

Plans may have moved a lot quicker if it had not been for the 1997-98 financial crisis and the long time it took Indonesia to drag itself out of the economic hole. Sluggish growth meant the city could not have sustained an MRT without unacceptably high state subsidies.

Then-Jakarta governor Widodo still took time to decide whether to go ahead with the project after his election in 2012. With the city already paying a 253 billion rupiah (US$180 million)-a-year subsidy for the Transjakarta Busway, he worried the MRT would prove too much of a burden.

But the decision had to be made. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the project financier, obligingly weighed in with US$2.4 billion in soft loans for the two north-south phases, with an annual interest rate of only 1% over a period of up to 40 years.

Initially, the Jakarta administration was tasked with carrying 58% of the debt burden, but during his two years as governor Widodo patiently whittled that down to 51%, with the central government agreeing to fork out the rest.

Workers work on an MRT costruction site in Jakarta on November 9, 2017.Indonesia's economy grew more slowly than expected in the third quarter, dimming hopes that a high-profile drive to boost Southeast Asia's biggest economy will hit its GDP target this year. / AFP PHOTO / BI / BAY ISMOYO
Workers work on an MRT costruction site in Jakarta on November 9, 2017. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

When Sabandar was brought in, the MRT was in crisis and seriously behind schedule. Landowners around three above-ground stations were holding out for more than the then-market rate of 25 million rupiah (US$1,850) a square meter, despite new rules on eminent domain laid down in the 2012 Property Law.

A traffic engineer and New Zealand-educated PhD geographer, Sabandar was up for the challenge, having supervised work on western Sumatra’s earthquake-devastated island of Nias as part of the widely lauded team put together by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency for Aceh and Nias, following the 2004 tsunami.

Bringing together all the stakeholders, it took Sabandar two months to finally break down the resistance of the last 16 family holdouts, who had been demanding as much as 100 million rupiah (US$7,400) a square meter and finally had to be content with 30-33 million rupiah (US$1,220-2,400).

When an anxious Widodo toured the project in early 2017, the cheerful MRT chief was able to report mission accomplished. But the pressure has been on ever since to get the job done. “It’s become a political objective,” he says.

Charged with building, owning and maintaining the new network, MRT Jakarta is classified as a regional-government-owned entity, allowing it to retain flexibility in finding alternative financing – something it could not do as a state enterprise.

Indonesia-Jakarta-MRT-Construction-Infrastructure-July 2018-Lin Neuman
Workers at an underground site of the MRT, July 2018. Photo: Lin Neuman

Distance-based fares are expected to contribute to only 40% of operating costs. The rest will come from transit-orientated development (TOD), built around electronic advertising and other commercial activity along the north-south corridor and its 21 stations.

Much of the focus will be on the midtown Dukuh Atas district, which has been designed as an integrated hub for suburban rail, the LRT, the north-south MRT corridor and the planned 87-kilometer east-west link stretching from Balaraja in the west to Cikarang in the east.

The shorter US$2 billion second phase of the north-south MRT, with its eight underground stations, will take another five years to build, mainly because of problems with a high water table as it progresses northwards, passing under a river as well.

At the same time, work will also proceed on the US$3.9 billion, 27-kilometer middle section of the east-west line that will span Jakarta’s city limits between Kambangan and Ujung Menteng. The break-even point for the entire network is expected to be 25 years.

Covering an initial radius of 700 meters, Dukuh Atas development, which is expected to begin construction later this year, will eventually include high-rise office blocks, sub-ground shopping and parkland on both sides of the city-splitting Malang River.

Initially targeting 173,400 passengers per day, about 30,000 short of capacity, it is anyone’s guess how long it will take for the MRT to make a difference to Jakarta’s chaotic traffic. But if the early experience of Bangkok’s Skytrain is any guide, it won’t happen overnight.

Motorists commute through a traffic jam in Jakarta on February 4, 2016 near an under-construction flyover (background). Indonesia lacks a mass-transport system, forcing its increasingly affluent 250 million people to rely heavily on private transport, resulting in grinding traffic in the biggest cities. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO / AFP PHOTO / BAY ISMOYO
Motorists commute through a traffic jam in Jakarta on February 4, 2016 near an under-construction flyover (background). Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

Take, for instance, the Transjakarta Busway network. Considering the cost of an ojek (motorcycle taxi) to get to the nearest stop, the daily 7,000 rupiah (US35 cents)two-way fare and perhaps an ojek at the other end, the average Jakarta commuter pays about 200,000 rupiah (US$14.28) a month for transport.

That adds up to the down payment on one of the 1,000 new motorcycles which each day join the throngs already dictating the flow of traffic on Jakarta’s streets. In some ways, because of their convenience, they are an even bigger challenge than the car to alleviating traffic.

While luring road-users on to public transport will mean introducing inner-city electronic road pricing (ERP) along the entire length of the MRT and heftier parking fees, Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan has so far refused to ban motorcycles on Jakarta’s main downtown thoroughfares.

It is a major obstacle, but one that may soon be removed. Baswedan is now being widely-tipped as presidential contender Prabowo Subianto’s running mate for the 2019 election, which would leave his job in the hands of perceived as more pragmatic businessman Sandiaga Uno.

Construction will continue on the MRT during next month’s Asian Games, but workmen are now laying broad pedestrian sidewalks along the length of Jalan Sudirman, Jakarta’s main business thoroughfare, as part of an impressive gentrification program.

In a city where pedestrians are normally treated as second-class citizens, it is a startling innovation. But in the months ahead, city enforcers will have their work cut out keeping the inevitable food vendors away and ensuring motorcyclists don’t use the walkway as a tempting extra lane.