Expressways and obstacles | Sunday Observer

Expressways and obstacles

Expressways have been an integral part of the Sri Lankan government’s development plan in the post war era. In fact with economists identifying that the lack of a systematic highways network connecting the agricultural and industrial centers with other important towns as one main obstacle to the development of the country constructing expressways has been a main focus area of the Sri Lankan government.

As the country’s first E- Class highway commenced operations in 2011 Sri Lanka has gone on to commence the construction of more expressways such as the Central Expressways and the extensions of already constructed highways in a bid to improve the transport system.

While at times they have earned the criticisms of the public for various lapses such as in safety and lack of services nevertheless the expressways have provided for faster transport while benefiting not only the general public but in developing various industries across in the island. 

On completion the Central Expressway will connect some of the main cities in the island, improving connectivity and travel time with the drive time to cities such as Kurunegala, Kandy and Dambulla is expected to be cut down significantly. But in recent times the ongoing Central Expressway Project (CEP) has come under a barrage of criticisms for alleged irregularities in processes, possible delays and environmental concerns. Nevertheless despite the various issues being faced officials now claim the completion of the expressway in 2020 is still very much a realistic goal.

Connecting districts

According to Ministry of Highways officials the CEP will connect several important districts on its completion. “Expressway will link Colombo, Gampaha, Kurunegala, Kegalle and Kandy districts”, Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education and Highways D.C Dissanayake said adding that the Expressway will bring various social and economic benefits to the people of Gampaha, Kurunegala , Kegalle and Kandy while also facilitate other development projects planned by the government in these areas.

In fact according to the Ministry of Highways the CEP is expected to help ease the implementation of a number of projects centered in Kandy such as the Bogambara Cultural and Tourist Centre, Agro Technological Centre ,IT Centre and the Industrial Centre proposed by the Government of Japan.

Among the other benefits as pointed out by the Ministry is the possibility of attracting further foreign investment to the island as developed infrastructure is a main requirement for investors relating to any industry. With the CEP expected to benefit the agriculture industry while also improving the land value Dissanayake opined that constructing a systematic expressway network will be a remarkable achievement for the development of Sri Lanka.

But despite the clear benefits nevertheless the CEP has come under fire in recent times. From alleged irregularities in the tender procedures to further delays in construction the officials have had to face a range of challenges in implementing the project.

Delayed loans

One main obstacle currently being faced by the project is the delay in two loans required for the Phase I and Phase III of the CEP. While the first phase of the CEP depends on a loan from the Exim Bank of China, the government has also sought a loan from the The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ for the third phase of the project. But with both loans yet to materialize officials have had to negotiate with contractors to ensure work on the expressway are not hampered as a result.

According to Dissanayake with the loan for phase 1 is yet to come through construction work is not being done at its full strength. :This is a challenge for us” he said adding that however work can be sped up once the issue is resolved.

However according to Dissanayake despite questions and doubts being cast the government is positive that the loan from Exim Bank will materialise. “We have provided the bank with the necessary information”he said adding that the bank is currently reviewing these reports along with their own as part of their due diligence procedure.

While pointing out that the Chinese counterparts have remained positive the government has also formulated a backup plan Dissanayake said. According to him if a loan facility is not granted other road options from Colombo to Mirigama and Minuwangoda are to be improved as part of the secondary plan while the government has also many other alternatives to obtain the necessary loan. Dissanayake also dispelled rumours that the loan for Phase III is being taken at an exorbitant interest rate. “There is no truth to this and in fact it is a desirable loan due to its favourable conditions despite being a private bank loan” he said. According to Dissanayake this is perhaps one of the rare instances that a private Japanese bank has agreed to provide a long term loan to a foreign government. The loan, amounting to 100 Million yen according to Dissanayake will come at around an expected interest rate of 2.04 per cent to be paid in 15 years after a grace period of six years.

“We are unable to get a long term loan of this amount in the open market” Dissanayake pointed out adding that even so it would be at a higher interest rate.

Contractor concerns

The selection of Taisei Corporation as the contractor for the most difficult section of the CEP has also raised some concerns among the general populace as according to reports the construction company had a record for tender rigging while a sinkhole in one of their work sites was also seen as a matter of concern.

However as explained by Dissanayake Taisei Corporation has previously worked in Sri Lanka while constructing sections from the Southern Expressway as well as the Outer Circular Highway. “Our experience with Tai Sei is good and we did review their work” he said adding that the Ministry also checked to see if any company in the bidding process had been blacklisted by any lending agency while also requesting they submit a report proving they had completed work worth 600 Million USD in the past five years. “All checks were done so we are favourable about the capabilities of Taisei,” Dissanayake said.

Environmental considerations

As with any project environmental concerns too have been raised about the CEP with people in areas which could possibly be affected conducting a series of protests as a result. However according to the Ministry Secretary all necessary studies have now been completed and necessary steps taken to prevent any environmental damage.

“Feasibility studies done previously were updated by us and we revisited the data to ensure it is correct” he said adding that the EIA was later updated as well. “A separate study by the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLRDC) regarding hydrology was done by collecting data of 100 years flood reports and entire road was planned accordingly,” Dissanayake explained.

The Ministry Secretary also explained that the high cost for the project is also due to factoring in environmental concerns. “We have tried our best not to cut through hills and fill them in as it was done in the Southern Expressway” he said adding that instead large sections of the road will be constructed on Viaduct thus adding to the cost of construction.

“Therefore it is also unfair to compare with the prices of the Southern Expressway while stating that the CEP is costing the government excessively” he said.

Dissanayake also says the public need not worry about the tunnels present in section three as they will not be dug under any settlements. “There are only four houses in the area and we are relocating these families” he said adding that the tunnels are only around 160 m, 210m and 200m in length. “Sri Lanka already has similar tunnels and no issues have cropped up” he clarified.

Current progress

According to Dissanayake Phase II being done by local contractors is ongoing and expected to meet the deadline of 2020.

“Section IV connecting Kurunegala and Dambulla will be focused on once the loan issues of other phases are rectified” Dissanayake said adding that the Ministry has currently received an unsolicited bid for the section. He is also of the view that while the expected loans will materialize in the near future Phases I and III will similarly be completed in 2020.

Despite the various challenges faced the government is determined to expedite the process and ensure the completion of the expressway. In fact according to Chairman of the Road Development Authority Nihal Suriyaarachchi land acquisition has taken the most time in the process and contributed to the delays.

“But these are now almost complete” he said adding that the work on Phase I is slower than expected though piling has also commenced.

However the target of 2020 can be met with the speeding up to construction process once all other issues surrounding the project are rectified Suriyaarachchi said.

PiX: Rukmal Gamage and the Ministry of Higher Education and Highways