Likoni ferry transport has witnessed heated politics for over two decades. However, this could finally ebb following the opening of the Likoni floating footbridge for public use on Friday.
Although considered a stop-gap measure to reduce congestion at the Likoni channel crossing, the Sh1.9 billion pedestrian bridge is seen as the first step after years of seeking an alternative mode of transport between Mombasa Island and the South Coast.
The new bridge, which is expected to operate for five years, was a result of intense consultation between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mombasa County leadership, led by Governor Hassan Joho, as they sought a solution to the congested Likoni ferry channel amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Joho said the president consulted him and Likoni MP Mishi Mboko after security personnel confronted and injured a number of ferry users as they enforced Covid-19 health guidelines.
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“The floating bridge was mooted after the confrontation at the Likoni channel. The president started a conversation as we sought a solution to the safety of commuters,” Joho said.
In a recent tour of the bridge, Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia said the president was pursuing an urgent solution to the build-up of human traffic at Likoni ferry channel, particularly at peak hours in the morning on the south mainland.
“The president was alarmed by long queues of up to two kilometres in the morning. This was a security matter and that is how this projected was started,” Macharia said.
The 840-metre bridge stretches from Liwatoni on the island to Ras Bofu (Bofu Maskani) on the south mainland. Its construction started in July last year.
Ferries have been the only road transport link between Mombasa Island and the South Coast. They have however been surrounded by politics for years as the search for an alternative means remained elusive.
In 2010, then Transport Minister Chirau Mwakwere courted trouble when he suggested that commuters pay Sh1 per trip to help buy new ferries.
Mwakwere had to backtrack on the statement after he was accused of proposing to burden the poor who cross the channel every day to look for odd jobs on the island.
Politics of the ferries can be traced back to April 29, 1994, following Mtongwe 1 ferry tragedy that killed 271 people and left others injured.
Residents and civil society groups put pressure on the government to improve the safety of the vessels and build a fixed bridge across the channel.
According to Macharia, the lasting solution to the Likoni ferry problem will be the construction of the Mombasa Gate Bridge next to the Liwatoni floating bridge beginning this year.
The Sh60 billion bridge will be 70 metres above the sea level to allow ships docking and leaving the Mombasa port to pass under it.
When the fixed bridge is complete within four years of construction, the floating bridge will be dismantled and mounted elsewhere in the country, the CS said.
President Kenyatta and Joho inspected the floating bridge last month, even as the China Road and Bridge Corporation engineers put final touches on the facility.
The bridge has a floating pontoon in the middle of the channel, which will be removed to allow ships to pass. The bridge will be operated by Kenya Ports Authority (KPA), which has also taken over the management of Kenya Ferry Services (KFS).
KFS Managing Director Bakari Gowa said the bridge is expected to decongest the ferry channel used by about 350,000 passengers and 6,000 vehicles daily.
“But this will all depend on how the pedestrians will embrace the floating bridge,” said Gowa.
The bridge, with entry and exit lanes, was initially planned to accommodate between 40 and 50 per cent of the Likoni ferry passengers and free the vessels for vehicular traffic.
Maritime consultant Andrew Mwangura expressed hope that the floating bridge was just a step towards the search for an alternative transport means to the Likoni ferry, which is free of the long delays and safe to users.
“I am sure the floating bridge will come with congestion and even blockages at Liwatoni on the island and Ras Bofu on the mainland, but will offer a relief to ferry users. However, the Mombasa Gate Bridge will be the panacea to the perennial problem of getting to the south coast,” said Mwangura.
Sam Ikwaye, the executive officer of Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers Coast Branch, welcomed the bridge as a major boost to the tourism industry in the country.
He said once operational, the bridge will reduce delays that tourists have always experienced at the Likoni channel.
“This bridge is good for ferry users and will help tourists visiting the South Coast. Tourists delayed at the ferry can cross the channel using the floating bridge and get transport on the other side. It will improve safety because it will reduce accidents associated with congestion at the Likoni channel,” said Ikwaye.
Salim Mwakunyapa, a resident of Bofu Maskani in Likoni mainland, said the footbridge was a game-changer as many people were already moving into the area for residential accommodation and to do business.
“We are waiting for a boom because many people are making inquiries for accommodation since the bridge is right here,” Mwakunyapa, a former councillor, said.
He said houses were gaining value while land prices were also going up as a result of the new infrastructure.
With the proposed construction of Mombasa Gate Bridge, Mwakunyapa believes Likoni south mainland is the next frontier for investors and those seeking decent accommodation close to Mombasa island as there will be no more hustle of using ferries to get there.
Kenya National Highways Authority Deputy Director Samuel Ogege said they were making final touches on the designs of Mombasa Gate Bridge funded by the governments of Kenya and Japan.
The bridge will have its approaches on the island from Lumumba Road and Archbishop Makarios Road and will join the Dongo Kundu bypass road at Pungu in Kwale County.