The final costing and plans for the upgrade of the Mthatha airport would be submitted to the Eastern Cape Department of Roads and Transport for approval in February, the department said on Wednesday.

Lead contractors, Osmond Lange and Ikemeleng Architects, which were working in a joint venture (JV)along with four other companies, were expected to complete the R60-million project by April next year.

The upgrade would include the construction of a new parking area for buses and car hire services, the conversion of existing parking facilities into a pay parking facility and the development of a new intersection with the R61 road in Mthatha.

A new navigational system that would enable flights to land at night would also have to be implemented, while all buildings would be repaired and painted.

Eastern Cape MEC for Roads and Transport, Gloria Barry, handed the site over to the JV, which included Clarence Bobie & Partners, Eyesizwe Consulting, Njilo Njilo and Africa Dynamics, in October last year, stating that the project would create about 100 jobs.

At the time, Barry said that the upgrade would allow for a second airline service between Mthatha and Johannesburg, which would include an evening flight.

The Mthatha airport formerly had been operating at only 30% of its capacity in terms of passenger volumes, with only one scheduled flight by Air Link to Johannesburg.

A link between Durban and Mthatha was also on the cards for the future.

Barry emphasised that the department had to link Port Elizabeth, Mthatha and Bhisho to ensure faster movement between these three areas, which would benefit local business development.

The department also wanted to improve access to the Wild Coast, a plan through which it aimed to improve tourism development.

The refurbishment, along with the R78-million upgrade of the Bhisho airport, which was completed in August, formed part of the Eastern Cape’s Blue Skyway aviation strategy.

This was aimed at improving the potential of the two airports, as well as that of rural airstrips in the province.

Both airports would still be renamed through the facilitation of the province’s Geographic Names Committee.

FURTHER INVESTMENT

Meanwhile, the department planned to roll out the R70-million second phase of its investment in the Africa’s Best 350 (AB350) bus service in April.

In October, Barry stated that the department would, over a seven-year period, invest R944-million in the empowered bus operator, which it believed would improve the accessibility of rural communities in the province.

Phase one of the project was implemented in October last year, with an initial investment of R107-million from the department and other stakeholders.

The department had provided R43-million of the funding, with the Eastern Cape Development Corporation contributing R2,5-million, the Development Bank of Southern Africa providing R10-million, the National Empowerment Fund R3,5-million, the Industrial Development Corporation R15,5-million and Scania Finance contributing R32-million.

Scania and Volkswagen would provide maintenance on the buses for the first five years of the seven-year contract, while they provided training for the bus operator’s technicians.

To date, the operator had transported almost 1,4-million passengers with its 55-bus fleet.

An additional 56 buses would be added to the fleet between April and August in the Amathole and Chris Hani districts, as well as some buses for the OR Tambo district.

The third phase of the project would start in April 2010, adding another 55 buses.

AB350 eventually would expand its fleet to 175 buses, servicing 166 routes in the Alfred Nzo, OR Tambo, Amathole and Chris Hani districts.

Further, the department also was making progress in expanding the services of the Kei Rail, which it launched early in 2008 and which acted as a link between Mthatha and East London.

The department, in collaboration with the South African Rail Commuter Corporation, Metrorail, Transnet Freight Rail (TFR), Sheltam Grindrod and Rail Focus, was managing the passenger service.

The intention was to introduce a regular services train, which would offer the communities along the rail line access to government services, such as health clinics, inside the trains.

More coaches to be used for the rail line’s new daily service had been launched in December.

The daily services were expected eventually to link up with the TFR Shosholoza Meyl train service operating between East London and Johannesburg.