Coker-Collins Shines at Confirmation Hearing -Promises to Triple Achievements as Minister Proper

MONROVIA – The Minister-designate of Public Works, Ruth Coker-Collins, faced the Senate Committee on Public Works on Friday, June 3, 2022 in fulfillment of cementing her presidential nomination through a confirmation hearing. The hour and a half-long lively exchanges between members of “the House of Elders” and Madam Coker-Collins brought to the fore the vexing roads development concerns of the Liberian Legislature and Madam Collins’ own competencies in accelerating Government’s Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development priorities through roads development. By the close of Madam Collins’ deliberations with the senators, it was clear that the Minister-designate had done justice to the barrage of queries from the highly critical senators, and provided a glimmer of hope that she is up to the task of steering the government of President George M. Weah’s roads development priorities.

The senate confirmation hearing, presiding over by Bomi County Senator Edwin Melvin Snowe, as Chairman on the Public Works Committee, saw Madam Coker-Collins attempting to start with a PowerPoint presentation, but was asked to send the presentation to the committee room, and allow the senators begin their grilling.

Before going through the grilling of the Senate, Madam Collins who will become the first Female to ever be appointed to as minister to oversee major infrastructure development in the country did a detailed presentation which she divided into segments and included the background to the Ministry of Public Works, her achievement as Acting minister for 2 years, her vision for road development and challenges making progress, recommendation moving forward and her overall vision for the Ministry as outlined by its mandate, among other things being to plan, design, construct and maintain public infrastructure; to formulate and supervise construction contracts; formulate and ensure compliance with acceptable engineering and architectural standards; register and issue certificates to construction companies and contractors operating in Liberia, and  review, certify and issue construction permits and other relevant permits and administer urban planning and zoning and land use activities.

She said as per the Road Inventory Survey done by the Ministry in 2019, the Country has a total road network of approximately 13,026km. Out of this, only about 7% (907km) of the road network is paved while 93% is unpaved (11,760km). Moreover, Primary roads constitute about 18% (2,323km) of the entire road network, of which, only 5% (617km) of the primary or major roads are paved and 13%(1,707km) are unpaved. Additionally, about 36% (836km) of the Primary or major roads are in good condition, 52% (1,208km) in fair, poor & bad conditions; while only 12%(278km) are in excellent condition.

On progress made on the Road Construction and Rehabilitation Works, Madam Collins said these road projects are basically either financed directly through the national budget/NRF (PSIP) and other financing bilateral and multinational institutions like the World Bank, African Development Bank, Arab Donors, EU, European Investment Bank (EIB), etc. She named some of the projects as the Gbarnga to Salayea, Sanniquellie to Logatuo, Ganta to Saclepea, Sacleapea toTappita, Ganta to Yekepa, Fish Town to Karloken, Johnsonville to Mt. Barclay, Pipeline to Johnsonville Road, etc, and discussed each of the projects on their respect statuses

She also stated that two major progress achieved under her leadership role as Acting Minister with respect to bridge construction and maintenance include the reconstruction of the Du River Bridge in Firestone, Margibi County and the groundbreaking for the rehabilitation of the Grand Bassa Community College bridge in Grand Bassa County.

In outlining projects to be undertaken ahead, the hardworking Minister designate said approximately 749.2km of the country’s major road corridors are to commence civil works in the near future, between now (2022) to 2023 hopefully, while approximately 596.2km of the primary or major roads that have had feasibility studies conducted but pending identifying funding source with a proposed estimated cost of about 535Million USD, attaching the information to a tabular chart of the projects.

“The Government of the People’s Republic of China through the Chinese Embassy near Monrovia and the Government of the Republic Liberia through the Ministry of Public Works signed an agreement on September 9, 2019 to undertake the construction of two China-Aid Overpass Bridges Project on Tubman Boulevard (Ministerial Complex and SKD Boulevard Junction) supplemented by The Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation signed on September 1, 2018 between the Government of Liberia and People’s Republic of China. The purpose of constructing the overpass bridges is to mitigate traffic congestion at the two locations, will cost US$50Million Grant from the Chinese Government and Works is to commence November 2022”, she said.

Madam Collins took the time to inform members of the Liberian Senate who sat keenly and attentively about the Liberia Urban Resilience Project, which she said will impact the livelihood of city dwellers and address the flooding situation in Monrovia and other urban areas in Liberia, that the project development objective (PDO) is to increase flood resilience and access to urban infrastructure in selected neighborhoods and to improve urban management in Liberia.

     She listed the financing structure as the World Bank contributing $40 m, Euro 10 or $11.3 m from the French partners/Government and that the actual implementation is expected to kickoff hopefully by the end of 2022.

She was also blunt to tell the Senators that though progress was made during the period under review and there was a bright prospect in the future, there were also on the other hand obstacles that served as obstacles to what should have been achieved.

“While noting the achievements and progress made thus far for the period under review, several constraints continue to impede our efforts and progress as a Ministry and Country or better still, those factors that are considered the binding constraints that are stopping us from getting to where we all envisioned our road network to where it ought to be, including but not limited to the following: the Ministry as infrastructure policy drivers at the same time implementing works; financing of the development of our road network mostly dependent on allocation from the National budget in the midst of competing national priorities; low incentives for engineers and other professionals in the infrastructure sector; minimum budget allocation to the Ministry for civil works with minimum or no budget for logistical support for the purpose of monitoring and supervision of works contract; viability to make payment to contractors timely, unpredictable weather conditions, among others”, she said.

Providing the way forward for road development in the country, Madam Collins said in order to get to where the major roads are to be, the Ministry believes that finding the answers to this question requires beyond the business as usual school of thoughts and adapting patriotic strategic thinking.

Such patriotic thinking will entail what the Minister-designate called: “Institutionalizing the reform in the road sector such as bringing into force the Road Authority as the implementing entity while the Ministry of Public Works drives the infrastructure policy ;Considering the very tight fiscal envelope (the National Budget) in catering to many priority areas like health, education, etc.; we as a Nation need to now begin to tap on other alternative sources of funding our road development like the tolling of major rehabilitated roads, utilizing the private sector thru a Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement, empowering the National Road Fund Office to a vibrant one in generating more revenue to finance road projects, etc., National Government boosting the motivation of engineers by increasing their compensation package from its current status or level, National Government providing logistical support to the Ministry of Public Works to enhance their supervision of works which will ensure that the value for money is fully achieved ,re-awakening or operationalization of the road maintenance zones and finally and above all, to address the constraints mentioned which will enable us to achieve our ambition of connecting all county capitals and major towns as well providing accessibility to our rural dwelling citizens and linking farms to markets, our investments in road infrastructure must be increased on all fronts”.

In her closing presentation she gave what she called “Overall Vision/Plan for the Ministry of Public Works & Infrastructure Sector” she has in mind if confirmed as Minister proper which she summarized as ‘building a sustainable road and infrastructure for all’.

“This means that all roads should be pliable all year round, building resilient roads and other public infrastructures that will meet our needs and that of our children’s children , building roads and other public infrastructures that everyone can assessed irrespective of their physical condition ,harmonizing and building strong cooperation with other utility and public infrastructure entities ,attracting the best of national engineering brains to the Ministry of Public Works by enhancing the internship opportunities to engineering students especially female , bring out innovative and alternative means of financing of our roads and other public infrastructure can maintain themselves other than the usual national budget, etc”, she concluded.

However, before taking questions from the senators, Madam Collins who had earlier provided an overview of her presentation wherein she also stated that her presentation covered the period from September 2020 to May 2022, focusing on “where we are and where we want to go with our roads development”, reiterated that there are 13,026 kilometers of road network in Liberia, with only 7%, (970km) paved, and the remaining 97% (12,056) unpaved. One of the breaking news in her presentation was the announcement that the government has concluded negotiation on the pavement of the road from Tappita to Grand Gedeh. 

Senate grilling and Minister-designate’s responses

Commencing the questions and answers period Senator Milton Teahjay of Sinoe County expressed concerns over the status of rehabilitation works on the Greenville City Bridge that was built in 1966; as well as the usage of the National Road Funds to implement public works roads projects.

As for Senator Gbleh-Bo Brown, he was more concerned about the two corridors leading to his Maryland constituent, explaining how tankers got stuck in the mud when he recently travelled to the southeast. “What are your plans if confirmed for these two corridors so that essential goods can reach Maryland? Can you assure us that you will be in charge of the Ministry when confirmed?” Senator Brown queried.

Senator Abraham Darius Dillon for this part was more concerned about whether the minister-designate had seen the national budget, and whether she knows exactly what is appropriated for the Ministry of Public Works; how much for salaries and roads, so that the senate can track performance.

Responding to the three questions, Mrs. Collins informed Senator Teahjay that the contract for rehabilitation of the Greenville Bridge is completed, and three contractors have gone to Greenville and done cost assessment for repair of the bridge.

“Yes, we have challenges for implementation of the bridge because of its length. So we have decided for the renovation work to be maintained in two-fold fashion. We will do maintenance, and the following budget year we will continue. 

“As for the National Road Funds, we have implementation programs under feeder roads, secondary roads and bridges. We use our national plans that concern all the counties. We have a program paid for by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, to be used to track every road. All counties are considered. We are doing the road from Ganta to Sacleapea which is 39km, with 10km already paved. Today, we have contracts to do the Lofa road. For the Road fund we do RAP payment.  We have done maintenance work from Salayea to Konea, from Konea to Voinjama, from Vonjama to Foya, from Foya to Mendikorma. For the Road Fund, we have maintenance work on the road from Toe Town to Grand Gedeh but we have a challenge. We have since drafted the contract where the contractor signed but it is routing through the system, and that’s why today we are facing these challenges. But for the Ministry of Public Works we want to thank the Senate for approving in the budget for the Ministry to have its own equipment. For the road fund, we are also doing maintenance work in Monrovia, like in other counties,” the Minister-designate stated categorically.

As for Senator Brown’s question about the Ministry working on the two corridors linking Maryland County, Madam Coker-Collins said it is not possible for now.

“The MPW has initiated the corridor from Grand Bassa, passing through Rivercess, Greenville, to Maryland; and started maintenance work with the equipment,” she said to Senator Brown, and informed Senator Dillon that the Ministry of Public Works budget is $59.9M.

“For works, we have $56.5M and for compensation we have $2.54M. For the Road Fund, it is clearly stated, we have $23M.

The next group of Senators raising their individual concerns included Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence of Grand Bassa County; Senator Conmany Wesseh of Rivercess, and Senator Boye Charles of River Gee County.

“I am very concerned about the Road Funds, because we are interested in expanding road networks and accommodating rural counties, through the opening of market roads and maintenance. But there are a lot of issues with the Road Funds. Since you took office from acting Minister till now, how much have you received from the Road Fund?

“Your report contains several roads, I would like you to distinguish those roads. I know there are roads that are supported by our international partners, World Bank and so forth, what are the roads that are supported by the Road Funds?

“We often pay millions of dollars to people who build along roads where they are not supposed to build. What are we doing to prevent that?” queried Senator Lawrence.

As for Senator Conmany Wesseh, he was more concerned about a major bridge in Rivercess, as well the challenges his county faces with roads. “What can we get from you, how soon will our troubles with poor roads come to an end? What are  your greatest strengths and weaknesses?”

Boye Charles for his part had this to say: “I just traveled to Rivergee. Coming from Fish Town to Karweken, a pregnant woman gave birth in an ambulance because of the bad roads. The superintendent said the contractors have been paid to do the work, but the government has not made the RAP payment. What is the status? And what is your working relationship with your co-workers?

Responding, Madam Coker-Collins said the Ministry has a complete policy but the implementation and enforcement of the policy is challenging. “But we are working with the Land Authority and the Police. We are also working with community chairpersons to implement,” she said. She also confirmed a cordial harmonious working relationship with her staff, a fact that was amplified by the Senate Public Works Committee Chair, Senator Snowe, who observed the unprecedented number of Public Works high-level staff that accompanied their boss for the confirmation hearing.

Regarding Senator Wesseh’s concern about the bridge, Mrs. Collins said the payment for the bridge has been received by her Ministry. “The team leaves today to start the process of the bridge. We have not gotten all of our equipment, but we sent communication to a company on the ground, to rent to us a few pieces of equipment that we will need.

“On the Fish Town to Karweken corridor, the RAP payment is being processed. We have received some money to have 50% of that amount of the $800,000 paid for 40km. We paid for the first 10km. As the contractor is progressing with the work, the government will raise the rest of the payment to have the corridor completed. By next week, the team will be leaving to start the process of the RAP payment,” she disclosed.

The next group of senators, led by Gboto Kanneh of Gbarpolu County, wanted to know about the Government’s promise to do farm-to-market roads in Gbarpolu; as well as the rehabilitation of a major bridge in Gbarpolu County.

Grand Cape Mount County Senator Varney Sherman for his part was overly concerned about road development in his constituency.

 “No road has been constructed by this government in Cape Mount. The Legislature impeached an Associate Justice for the road funds. Don’t you think you should have more say in road fund expenditure?” Senator Sherman wondered.

Responding, Madam Coker-Collins said the Ministry already has a contract for the referenced bridge, which the Ministry of Justice is reviewing.

She furthered that the farm-to-market roads are being financed by the National Roads Fund. “Some maintenance works are ongoing there. In arrangement with some logging counties who asked us to provide fuel and they will provide their machines free of charge,” she disclosed.

Addressing Senator Sherman’s concerns, Madam Collins said the Madina to Robertsport road project is ongoing. “We are doing the drainage and the earthworks, but we slowed down because of the heavy rains. As soon as the rains subside, we will resume our work there.”

Having received several other barrages of queries and answered them succinctly, Madam Coker-Collins was permitted to retire from the Senate’s grilling, and asked to forward to the senate committee room pertinent details of her deliberation that she had promised to provide.

According to her resume presented to the Senate Committee on Public Works, Mrs. Ruth Coker-Collins holds a Bachelor Degree in Business Administration from Cuttington University, and a BSC in Civil Engineering from the Stella Maris Polytechnique University.

The Public Works Minister-designate once worked for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), and the Society of Engineers globally for the USA. She also served as President Women Engineers in Liberia.

The avowed female advocate shortly served as Deputy Minister for Technical Services at the Ministry of Public Works before serving as acting Minister of Public Works following the demise of Minister Mobutu Vlah Nyenpan in 2018 from stroke.

Madam Collins, who served as CEO for her own engineering company, is happily married with four children. Her husband who dutifully escorted her to her confirmation, was magnanimously allowed to enter the hearing chambers.

“If confirmed, Honorable Senate, I can assure you that we will do more than what we have done before. We will triple what we have done,” a highly elated Coker-Collins remarked, as civil society organizations and women groups toting placards danced and chanted on the grounds of the Capitol Building.

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