It was meant to embody the relationship between China and the Maldives, while also serving the everyday transport needs of people living in the capital and its suburb island Hulhumalé.
But the $200 million Sinamalé Bridge, which opened less than a week ago to the public, has caused controversy with sky-high taxi fares and bike bans as well as confusion over bus services. There has even been blood, following several accidents.
After a week of festivities – including a million dollars worth of fireworks, five weddings, bike rallies, marches and music events – the bridge opened for traffic last Friday evening.
It was no coincidence the housing minister opened the bridge for traffic at the start of a weekend. Fridays see thousands of Malé dwellers and expats flee the heaving capital to enjoy a few hours of peace and quiet on Hulhumalé, with crowds normally packing out the MTCC ferry terminal in Malé.
But, that Friday, the terminal was almost empty as thousands took advantage of the toll-free bridge. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat were flooded with pictures and videos of people riding their motorbikes with one hand and filming their antics with the other.
– ‘Illogical regulation’ –
Taxi drivers also took advantage of the absence of a toll fare and an established bus service, charging eye-watering amounts for a ride before the Maldives Transport Authority was forced to step in.
On Monday evening, it made an announcement capping taxi rates. The maximum amount that can be charged for a trip between Malé and Hulhumalé is MVR40 (USD$2.60).
But drivers had been charging between MVR100 and MVR250 before the fares were capped. One driver said he took MVR500 for a single trip across the bridge.
There were rumours on social media that drivers were refusing to do trips between the two islands because of the new regulation. One taxi centre said none of its drivers were willing to do trips for MVR40 and that they would only do it for MVR100.
Mohamed Mustafa, an operator for JR Taxi, complained about the transport authority’s “illogical regulation” and “irresponsible media” for defaming taxi drivers.
“We are also people, trying to earn, feed our families while paying rent in Malé,” he said. “It’s not like this is a government service. Why can’t the government put a cap on rent and say maximum you can charge is MVR5,000? If that happened, we could charge MVR7.50, no problem.”
The transport authority on Wednesday warned taxi centres that those charging above the fare rate would face action.
Mahmood Shafeeq from the transport authority, told Mihaaru that taxi centres violating the fare regulation would be given a warning and that the taxi operating licence would be revoked if they continued charging higher prices.
– Upheaval and uncertainty –
Another consequence of the bridge opening has been the spike in traffic in Hulhumalé.
For almost a week the suburb’s streets – which are usually less congested than the capital’s – have been choking from the influx of motorbikes. Avas reported that multiple accidents in Hulhumalé left at least eight injured on Monday night.
Residents of Hulhumalé expressed their frustration on social media about the increased traffic, while Malé residents defended their right to enjoy some breathing space away from the heaving capital.
But four wheels will have to do for those without two.
Maldives Ports Limited has begun a trial period to test demand and peak hours for a public bus service from Malé to Hulhumalé,
The bus starts from one corner of Hulhumalé and stops at a terminal next to the industrial zone in Malé. The terminals are away from residential areas in both islands.
A MPL spokesman told the Maldives Independent no definite plans had been drawn up to add more bus stops, although the company plans to expand sometime in the future.
Before the bridge opened thousands in Hulhumalé used the ferry for their daily commute to the capital, while parents used the service to take their children to schools.
They used take a bus to the ferry terminal in Hulhumalé, from where they travelled to Malé. The Malé ferry terminal is not far from several schools and the main business district in Henveiru. The bus and ferry service are operated by the Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC).
But, due to the arrival of the MPL bus service, the MTCC also added new bus routes to its service in Hulhumalé including a bus connecting the suburb’s residential area to the MPL bus terminal.
But the upheaval has confused and frustrated Hulhumalé residents. People who had settled into familiar routines lingered near bus stops, asking about the changes. When the buses stopped, conductors were cornered by crowds asking if the bus was going to the ferry, bus terminal or airport.
Despite the changes, the MTCC tweeted that “no changes have yet been made to our existing transport services” since the bridge’s opening.
– Stay in your lane –
Shifa Mohamed, Malé City mayor, told the Maldives Independent it was hard to see how the bridge would help people if they were in the dark.
“The bridge, without a doubt, is a help for people. But people can’t really measure the benefit of the bridge or its help without knowing the numbers, the prices and the tolls. What we see is that, until the election, it’s all open for everyone. This whole thing is a big picture shown to people to win the election,” she said.
She praised the government for discouraging people from taking children on the bridge, but said police were failing to maintain the overflow of traffic.
“Just making a concrete bridge is not enough, rules need to be made, there should be directions on how to properly use the bridge and what the changes are. Maldivians still need to learn how to use lanes properly for instance.
“You also need to look at what it would do to Hulhumalé. The waterfront area, where all the guesthouses are, needs to be made into a pedestrian zone. The neighbourhood around the flats are very dark when the flats turn off their lights.
“Hulhumalé needs to be lit up, it needs traffic lights, it needs more zebra crossings. It needs CCTV cameras.
“Police are unable to maintain traffic there, they cant maintain Malé and they can’t maintain Hulhumalé now. The number of accidents in Hulhumalé has risen and we don’t see a real effort being made by the government to solve this. If someone dies, they die, and whoever is admitted gets admitted. They don’t care enough.”
The mayor said the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) – the state-owned company with municipal control over Hulhumalé – refused to let the city council hold a meeting in Hulhumalé to ask residents how the bridge would affect them.
“HDC blocked us from meeting Hulhumalé residents,” she said. “We asked four times, when they wouldn’t give a space to meet we wanted to meet in the park but that was blocked too.”
Second photo from Avas