Construction, Engineering and Transportation
September 19th, 2021
Resumption, Restoring, Rejigging and Plans for Building
The challenges as a result from COVID-19 have provided opportunities for organisations to re-evaluate, upgrade and retrofit their plant assets.
INTERVIEW – ASSOCIATION OF PROFESSIONAL ENGINEERS OF TRINIDAD & TOBAGO (APETT)
Earmarked as a vital cog in the assembly line of the nation’s recovery, the construction sector has suffered from a ‘stop start’ scenario in the past year, due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Regardless, the importance of the sector is evident by the prioritisation allocated – 15,000 construction workers were selected for early COVID-19 vaccination – as well as the continued plans for building homes and highways across the landscape. Indeed, construction was top of the list of the sectors that were allowed to resume as part of a phased reopening of the economy in July 2021.
Minister in the Ministry of Finance Brian Manning alluded to the economic thrust provided by construction “The Government wants 25,000 new homes to be built in the next 10 years with 20% of this project being awarded to small and medium contractors. This will help boost the economy, creating thousands of jobs.”
Such new projects offer a welcome addition to the others that have been stymied by various pandemic-enforced lockdowns, such as the Point Fortin Highway Extension. At the time of writing, both public and private sector construction projects were fully operational.
Exemptions were granted for some projects to recommence during the nationwide lockdowns, including an early restart on the Valencia to Toco Road Upgrade Project. The other mass project of note is the Diego Martin Interchange that began in March 2021. Expected to last 18 months, its development will be a major symbol of construction leading the economic recovery.
Besides the lockdown period, what has been the biggest problem faced by the industry during the pandemic?
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the sector has been the rapid price rise of materials due to COVID-19. The price of steel almost doubled in the six months to April 2021. This represents a disruptive factor for the local building industry, creating increased costs and according to the TTCA President, Glenn Mahabirsingh, it must lead to new contractual practices “This is a variation on a long-standing debate on how contracts should cater to contingencies beyond the control of commercial parties. For companies, the difference between profit and loss hinges on margins easily eroded by ungovernable variables.”
The second critical factor for the industry remains the substantial debts owed by the State to contractors and the potential for retrenchment as part of cost-cutting exercises. Mahabarsingh confirms that the TTCA recognises these issues and is doing its part to deal with these perceived pressures “You have a mixture of direct employees as well as a lot of sub-contractors. There would be some level of inconvenience which they would have experienced a year ago during the last lockdown so, I assure you that the various members have mechanisms to deal with this period of shutdown. We have also been holding dialogue with the Government on paying off debts owed to members for work done as he noted this money will go a long way, particularly now.”
The sector will have to overcome many hurdles during its reopening, but its position as a crucial pillar for the nation is clear, as espoused by Manning: “Construction will restart the economy.”
Directly affected by the economic downturn and the reduction of actual human movement due to the pandemic, were the myriad divisions that fall under the engineering umbrella – chemical, civil, mechanical, electrical. Each encountered different outcomes over the 2020-2021 period. President of the Association of Professional Engineers of Trinidad and Tobago (APETT) Eng. Jainarine Bansee confirmed this “Engineers across all disciplines are at the forefront to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and are functioning as essential workers and professionals in all sectors of the economy to maintain stability.”
Eng. Bansee indicated the other side of the sector’s fortunes throughout this unprecedented time, “There have been loss of income and jobs due to underutilisation of machinery and plant assets as a direct fallout from COVID-19. This resulted in a reduction of the services from engineering professionals inclusive of contractors, who continue to endure financial hardship.”
How has the sector adapted its practices during the pandemic period?
However, the sector has utilised modern technology to quickly adapt to the global scenario and continue its dissemination of information and education. “The restrictions from physical gathering and networking have provided opportunities for virtual dissemination of knowledge through webinars which APETT has embraced. This facilitated uptake by engineers and associated professionals from anywhere. For example, employees at an offshore oil and gas platform.”
How will this affect the sector in 2021/2022?
Eng. Bansee sees the benefits for both the current situation and the sector’s outlook towards 2022. “The restrictions and challenges as a result of COVID-19 have provided opportunities for organisations to re-evaluate, upgrade and retrofit their plant assets to become more competitive in the global market. Similarly, it’s an ideal opportunity for individuals to acquire knowledge and competence across multidisciplines to become more marketable.”
The COVID-related travails for this sector are dominated by the news of cost-cutting at the State-owned Caribbean Airlines Limited (CAL). After a year and a half of almost no air travel and recording an operating loss of $738M in 2020, the second half of 2021 will see an enforced retrenchment of 450 staff, costing $110M, as well as a reduction in the routes offered. CAL will also reduce the number of aircraft flying its insignia, with a restructured fleet of eight 737 jets for international destinations and five ATR Turboprops for its Trinidad to Tobago airbridge.
A $400M investment in early 2021, by the State into the Public Transport System Corporation (PTSC), is designed to create a larger bus fleet that can access the smaller roads across the nation, thereby offering alternative routes to those currently used by the 32,666 taxis in operation.
Minister of Works and Transport, Rohan Sinanan explained the overhauling of the fleet – “One of the problems PTSC has is the number of routes. We only operate on 50% of the routes because of the number of buses we have. Government took a decision to purchase 300 buses, which would increase the number of buses to 500, and that would show a significant increase in the number of people choosing the PTSC.”
Minimal traffic on the roads has made it difficult to attain credible figures to assess the full impact of The Ministry of Works and Transport’s landmark initiative ‘Driving Toward Transformation’ that was launched during the first lockdown in March 2020. The mechanics are now in place to support the scheme – from online registration and mobile licensing units to an all-encompassing demerit points system with a comprehensive camera network – that has been rolled out to create cohesive modern technology solutions for the driving population. Though its infancy has been extended by the pandemic, the system has already taken effect with the suspension of driver’s licences resulting from the accumulation of demerit points.
The technology enacted under the scheme represents a great leap forward in the effort to improve the country’s safety record, with NGO Arrive Alive President Sharon Inglefield welcoming the implementation “I am confident that the Ministry’s initiative will benefit citizens and make the nation’s roads safer for all.” With a stated aim of reducing road fatalities by 50% under the ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030’, the Ministry now has the means to create a significant culture shift across the nation’s roads.
The Ministry also launched two new fast ferries in the past year, APT James and Buccoo Reef, as part of its inter-island travel fleet. The two catamarans, costing US$73.5M and US$72.9M respectively, offer greater passenger and vehicle capacity on their daily journeys between the islands. Further, after the negative trickle-down effects created by reduced ferry services in the 2017-2019 period, the ferry purchases offer the confidence of regular service and with it, the consistent movement of goods as well as people. “Seabridge reliability is now here,” confirmed Tobago House of Assembly Chief Secretary Ancil K. Dennis.
Article by: Sheldon Waithe