What you should know about expressways

Published on October 17, 2011   ·   No Comments

Traffic and Road management By Professor Amal S. Kumarage

No doubt you must be eager to drive or ride on the Southern Expressway of which you must surely have by now seen many attractive pictures. But no one as yet knows the day or the hour it will be opened to the public.

The Southern Expressway that is to be opened is a 96-km stretch of four-lane, access-controlled highway from Kottawa to Galle. Planning began in 1990 and it will become the first of a network of expressways being constructed. The Colombo-Katunayake Expressway which actually begins just outside of Colombo and even the Colombo District, is next in line. The Colombo- Kandy alternate Highway which begins from Kadawatha is currently being designed. The most important link between these expressways is the Outer Circular Highway which is also being constructed from Kottawa to Kadawatha. The northern section of the Outer Circular Highway which will connect to the Katunayake Expressway is yet to be constructed.

It has been a notable achievement for the Road Development Authority and the successive governments to have pursued these projects having overcome many economic and social obstacles, so that we can now look forward to the beginning of a network of modern roads.

The national road network was built after 1815 by the British who decided to administer the country from Colombo which they also converted to the commercial capital as both the seaport and the land transport networks were designed to hub to Colombo. But this type of connectivity isolated rural areas as all markets were concentrated in Colombo. This was evident after independence when politicians found that providing roads to villages was one sure way to get elected to Parliament from rural areas. With each election, Sri Lanka’s rural road network grew rapidly from less than 10,000 kms in 1959 to 66,000 kms by 1990 making Sri Lanka a country with a very high density of rural roads. However this was at the expense of developing the national roads. The major highways programme that was mooted by the then powerful Planning Commission was overruled out in the 1960s as there was more support for continuing with rural roads.

The rural roads then were provided with rural buses in the 1970s- which became the next round of election promises. But even in spite of the heavy investment in roads and buses, economic development did not reach the rural areas. The rural roads while providing access to basic necessities, did not give the desired economic impetus to villages since the travel cost to consumption markets was still too high. Similarly the high transport cost to provinces also led to manufacturing and commercial activities concentrating close to Colombo such that rural areas were again left out. Today vast lengths of rural road are poorly-trafficked as people are still too poor to own a vehicle. On the other hand, urban areas are over developed, have too many vehicles, too few roads or space to expand them.

Political objectives over-rode development objectives leading to an over-emphasis on rural roads and an under-emphasis on national and urban roads that has resulted in continuing transport problems in both rural as well as urban areas. The open market policies which led to an increase in motorization also were not founded on a sustainable transport policy. Little was done to improve the road networks to keep up with the increase in vehicles. The problems of severe congestion surfaced in the 1990s which led to the Road Development Authority developing a set of alternate highways which today have become expressways. But now every politician seems to want an expressway to his electorate.

An expressway is an engineering marvel. To cut through mountains, conquer the terrain and build a long ribbon of road hundreds of kilometers long is no mean task. The Southern Expressway cost Rs 60 billion. This is over Rs 600 million per km. The Colombo-Katunayake Expressway is likely to cost at least Rs 40 billion for just 25 kms making it Rs 1.6 billion per km! Currently the Government allocates over Rs 100 billion for roads every year. The national roads consume almost the entire cash pie. This is why our urban roads are not cared for and the most important first mile of urban road or the last mile of rural road (or vice versa) is the most difficult and costly.

Just like the massive rural road network has become too expensive to maintain, the upkeep of these expressways in the future will also be a challenging task. The maintenance alone will cost around Rs 500 million per year for the Southern Expressway. This is 10% of what was allocated for maintenance of all 12,000 kms of national roads the RDA has to maintain. Hence will more expressways be at the expense of the maintenance of other roads? Will Sri Lanka’s road network once again become pawns of political expediencies? Will once again only one end of the road hierarchy get developed while the other end gets neglected? For sustainable mobility and accessibility, the facilities for the entire journey must be improved. The urban roads, the rural roads and everything in between are an absolute requirement for efficient supply chain operations between production and consumption areas.

Another important aspect is the equitability of such large investments. The Southern Expressway is not designed for bicycles, motor cycles, three wheelers, land vehicles etc. While from an operational point of view this can be justified, it also effectively disallows exactly 70% of the motorized vehicle fleet from using it. Of the balance vehicles namely cars, vans, trucks and buses, another 30-40% would not be in sound mechanical condition or suited for travel on expressways. As such, only around 20% of the vehicles will be able to use an expressway. Most of the investment on expressways will not be paid for by the users. The tolls that are to be collected are unlikely to pay more than 1/3rd of the cost. Hence those of us who will be lucky enough to own a vehicle that can use the expressway, should be grateful to the majority of non users who also contribute towards paying off the loans.

Yet another issue with expressways is that they feel safe when they are in fact not! Any road is only as safe as the road users. What Sri Lanka does not have as yet is a Culture of Road Safety. Unless extreme measures are taken to ensure that the prevailing culture of lawlessness and impunity is kept out of the expressways, our new roads could easily become as one of my colleagues called a ‘Highway to Heaven’. This can only be changed by starting the Southern Expressway with a lower speed limit of 80 km/hr, educate drivers, inspect all vehicles, stagger allowing use of different class of vehicles on the expressway in an effort to ensure that a culture of safe driving can be created on the expressways. It should also be remembered that the Southern Expressway is a ‘budget highway’ where the lane widths and shoulder widths have been reduced from international standards to economize on cost. As such, safety is already compromised and a further risk could only be measured by a higher number of accidents.

Many expect expressways to bring prosperity to a country. But this does not always happen. A highway is like any other investment. It has a cost and it reaps benefits over its lifetime. For it to bring prosperity the sum total of benefits should be greater than the investment cost. Highways as in the case of any other infrastructure should be designed in such a way that the cost is minimized and benefits are maximized. This alone will ensure that they are beneficial to the society that pays for it. As such undertaking cost effective designs, calling competitive bids, ensuring transparency in contracts will keep the cost down. The benefits are more subtle. A poorly planned or poorly designed road is unlikely to bring the benefits that are required to pay back the cost.

A new road gives many benefits. Among them, are time savings, savings from lower vehicle operating costs, savings from less accidents and benefits that arise due to development a road brings to a region. If an administrator who listens only to selected ‘yes’ men and then builds a highway where a railway or metro should have been built, it will get congested in half its design life. Then there would be no time savings or savings in vehicle operating costs. Similarly if the administrator is in a hurry to open such an expressway giving no cause or concern to safety, we could see an increase in accident costs instead of a reduction. This is what happened when the Galle Road by-pass at Egoda Uyana was opened in the 1990s. It has happened to many expressways in other countries. Similarly, if an expressway is designed only for people who wish to travel from one city to another city and if the people residing in rural areas in between these cities have no access or bus service that use the expressway there would be no regional development benefits. This illustrates why an expressway requires careful planning to ensure that the benefits are greater than the costs and it will contribute to prosperity.

As practice goes in the transport sector in Sri Lanka, planning is seen by the administrator as an obstacle to development and sometimes even viewed as a conspiracy to derail a project. Only projects funded by international development institutions such as the World Bank, ADB and JICA insist on feasibility studies. Government-funded highway projects running to billions of rupees are almost always carried out without even a traffic count leave alone a feasibility study or cost-benefit analysis. Similar are the projects that get implemented through unsolicited funding or are financed through government to government agreements. This is a poor level of accountability to the people.

Expressways can thus easily become ‘expressways to disaster’ if poorly planned or ‘expressways to heaven’ if poorly designed or managed. For any road to become an ‘expressway to development’ it requires our best wishes for better planning, design and operation.

(The writer is Senior Professor at the Department of Transport & Logistics Management at the University of Moratuwa. He can be reached at prof.kumarage@gmail.com).


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