The Likoni channel crossing connects the northern and southern parts of Kenya’s expansive coastal region.
A litany of woes has dogged this vital waterway between Mombasa Island and the South Coast.
A recent accident that killed a woman and her young daughter was a rude awakening to the vulnerability of the 300,000 people and 6,000 vehicles that use the ferry daily.
They are at the mercy of the condition of the ferries, a responsibility that falls under the operator, Kenya Ferry Services.
However, the biggest scandal is not how much negligence is attributed to KFS for the loss of human lives and goods in the channel; it is the cost of buying, maintaining and operating the ferries.
KFS has a long history of being a cash cow for corrupt barons who control the procurement and operations of the ferry services.
The other scandal is the government has spent a fortune on its bid to address the problems of transport across the channel yet corruption networks pilfer resources at KFS and the Port of Mombasa, nearly crippling a viable long-term solution to the challenges.
After last month’s incident, the government promised to replace the creaky ferries with a more efficient system.
Transport and Infrastructure Cabinet Secretary James Macharia said the options include a long-awaited bridge and cable cars to seamlessly ferry commuters and goods across the channel.
Even then, Mr Macharia added, the government would buy three ferries to maintain the services.
For the three projects to run concurrently, the government would have to mobilise Sh90 billion — over Sh80 billion for the bridge, Sh5.8 billion for the cable cars and Sh3 billion for the ferries.
Quite a tall order in an environment in which potential financiers are increasingly more concerned about the rapid increase in the national debt, a chunk of it associated with graft-riddled public investments.
A 1.4-kilometre bridge across the channel would be expensive.
The channel, the sole access for merchant and cruise ships between Kilindini harbour and the Indian Ocean, is Kenya’s gateway to the world.
The proposed bridge, christened “Mombasa Gate Bridge”, would partly be funded with a Sh46.6 billion loan from Japan. The engineering designs, also funded by Japan, are ready and tendering has begun.
But the much-hyped cable car project is still in a rut. Last year, a private Kenyan investor, Trapos, signed a contract with KFS to instal the cable cars under a public-private partnership that also involved an international partner.
Initial reports show the project was to commence by the end of last year at a cost of Sh5.8 billion.
Cable car projects are innovative, least-cost solutions to urban commuter transport problems.
Medellin city, in Colombia, pioneered the use of cable cars in urban transport in 2014, and the gospel has spread to other major cities in Latin America, Asia and, more recently, Africa.
The proposed cable car system for Likoni should, ideally, not be a costly affair and shouldn’t take years to implement.
Its financing model and cost should be based on the experience of efficient similar projects.
The World Bank estimates the capital cost of a cable car infrastructure at $10-25 million (Sh1-2.5 billion) per kilometre. The cost of a cable car across Likoni channel should, therefore, be capped at Sh3.5 billion.
These exceptions call for a holistic approach to the development of the Likoni channel infrastructure programme.
Otherwise, the sins and ghosts of the past may come back to haunt the government, particularly if the projects aren’t executed in time and budget.
Mr Warutere is a director of Mashariki Communications Ltd. [email protected]