President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo speaking with journalists after inaugurating the first section of the Bogor-Ciawi-Sukabumi Toll Road in West Java on Saturday. (Antara Photo/Puspa Perwitasari)

Jokowi Holds Ministers' Feet to the Fire to Accelerate Toll Road Projects Ahead of Elections

DECEMBER 05, 2018

Jakarta. If for whatever reason you must travel overland between Jakarta and Surabaya in East Java, you will soon be able to do so with relative ease along a new 759-kilometer toll road connecting Indonesia's two biggest cities.

This forms part of the Trans-Java Toll Road, an ambitious project initiated by former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Construction of this road, which was supposed to be completed at the end of Yudhoyono's second term in 2014, encountered various obstacles, including the typical funding and land acquisition problems.

Speaking during CEO Networking 2018 at the Ritz Carlton in Jakarta on Monday, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said he would personally undertake such a trip. "I want to try to take a car; how long will it take?" he said.

While the president did not explain whether he would be escorted by his security detail, which usually clears his way, a simulation of the trip on Google Maps showed that it could currently take up to 15 hours.

Jokowi has been focusing on toll roads in recent months, with his schedule filled with inaugurations of several sections of new highway. Many of these projects were launched by his predecessor, but there is also one that had been on hold for nearly 21 years.

Early last month, Jokowi opened the 57.5-km Pejagan-Pemalang Toll Road in Central Java, which forms part of the Trans-Java. Three weeks later, he went to Sragen in Central Java to inaugurate the 51-km Sragen-Ngawi Toll Road, which forms part of the 90.43-km Solo-Ngawi Toll Road.

The president confirmed during Monday's forum that the new toll road between Jakarta and Surabaya would be opened later this month, while the complete Trans-Java Toll Road, which will connect Merak and Banyuwangi, the westernmost and easternmost cities on Java Island, respectively, would likely be operational some time next year.

The most recent inauguration was that of the first section of the Bogor-Ciawi-Sukabumi Toll Road, better known as Bocimi, between Ciawi and Cigombong in West Java.

Construction of this section commenced in 1997, but stalled due to the usual obstacles, before it was taken over by state-owned builder Waskita Karya in 2005, during the Yudhoyono era.

President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, accompanied by Public Works Minister Basuki Hadimuljono, left, State-Owned Enterprises Minister Rini Soemarno, second from right, and Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi, right, during the inauguration of the first section of the Bocimi Toll Road in Bogor, West Java, on Saturday. (Antara Photo/Puspa Perwitasari)

Long-Delayed Promises

Infrastructure development is in Jokowi's priority list as his administration seeks to deliver on his promises to revamp Indonesia's ailing roads, airports and power plants to turbo-charge the country's economy.

With infrastructure funding from the state budget and investment by state-owned firms and the private sector currently at near-record levels, Jokowi appears in a hurry to show proof of his achievements before next April's presidential and legislative elections.

He keeps his ministers on their toes with impromptu visits, or blusukan, to construction sites to ensure that everything runs according to plan and to ask why progress is not faster. But this has put pressure on state-owned companies and drew criticism that his ambitions are causing them to face liquidity risks.

Banner Irks Opposition

Many infrastructure projects have been completed since Jokowi took office in 2014, which has emboldened some of his supporters.

During peak holiday traffic towards the end of Ramadan in June this year, many travelers on the Cikampek-Palimanan Toll Road in West Java were greeted by a banner with the words: "Supporters of #2019GantiPresiden, you are passing along the Mr. Jokowi Toll Road." The message referenced a Twitter hashtag coined by the opposition, calling for a change of government next year.

Photos of the banner quickly went viral on social media and became a hot topic of discussion in WhatsApp groups, which irritated the opposition.

"Do you think he is building toll roads with his own money?" responded Fadli Zon, a senior member of the opposition Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra). He even went on to liken the sharing of photos of the banner online to spreading fake news, which is prohibited by law.

Despite criticism that the president's ambitious agenda could overburden state firms by forcing them to fund long-term projects, and that the state budget could take a hit through a higher debt-to-gross domestic product ratio, massive infrastructure spending is a bitter pill the country must swallow.

Febrio N. Kacaribu, an economist at the University of Indonesia's Institute of Economics and Social Research (LPEM-UI), said last month that the accelerated infrastructure development under Jokowi would have a long-term positive impact on the country.

"If the president did not allocate that Rp 300 trillion to Rp 400 trillion [$20.8 billion-$27.7 billion] to infrastructure spending and instead spent that money from the state budget on something else, economic growth could have been lower," he said.

Febrio added that the infrastructure development would have a multiplier effect that would be felt within the next four to five years.

"For people living in urban areas, a big problem they must deal with every day, is traffic jams. That's a high cost to the economy," he said.

The private sector meanwhile also greatly benefits from improved infrastructure.

"Just imagine, a syrup concentrate manufacturer in Medan [North Sumatra] currently pays more for sugar brought in from Java, than for sugar imported from China. Infrastructure problems are that real," he said.

Government officials, including Chief Economics Minister Darmin Nasution, have said that the Indonesian economy would likely expand by 5.2 percent this year, despite year-on-year third-quarter growth of only 5.17 percent.

Public Works Minister Basuki Hadimuljono said the government would shift its focus to complete construction of toll roads in the southern part of Java after completion of the Trans-Java Toll Road along the northern part of Indonesia's most populous island. People living in the southern part will likely have to be patient for a while longer.