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Kashyapa A. S. Yapa

It is refreshing to hear that large public works of Sri Lanka are now being subjected to scrutiny by the general public, who is supposedly the beneficiary, but always end up being the victim and also the eventual carrier of their debt burden.  This is a welcome change from the times when such projects were forced down the throat of the public (like the Mahaweli fiasco).  While commending the Roads Development Authority (RDA) for asking the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, (UM) to prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment (E.I.A.) to evaluate the proposed Southern Expressway project, we shall not sit on our hands but do our job, i.e., scrutinize.  Now, the RDA may throw up its hands and say “Hey, the public commenting period is over!”  And, let’s start from there.  Do you expect the public to become familiar with and discuss a project that may spend more than twice RDA’s total annual budget (Rs. 16 billion!), all within a period of 30 days? (It too, crammed with the Vesak holidays and the Southern Province polls!)  Come on folks, let’s be serious.  

Our learned colleagues at UM lamented at the beginning of their E.I.A., that not even the preliminary designs of the Expressway were available for them to do a proper evaluation.  I’d say, so much the better!  Since the project is still at the feasibility stage, what they had to do was to make an E.I.A. of all possible options that could provide a safe and speedy access for the goods and the passengers to and from the South.  There, they could have analyzed the new expressway along with whatever other possibilities, each on an equal footing!  That’s the true spirit of a feasibility study: evaluate all options on their environmental impacts, not just on the technical possibilities, and discard the technically, environmentally, economically, and hence politically, unfavorable ones.  If that’s not the standard (western) way of doing things, so be it!  This expressway is no standard project for us in Sri Lanka!

However, what the UM team did, instead, was unfortunate.  They allowed the RDA to define the objectives of the study, and soon got trapped in a straightjacket.  The three objectives of the study turned out to be: 1) to provide accessibility and mobility for future development of the South, 2) to provide a highway … and 3) to provide a highway…!  What else would bring bread and butter for RDA! How could the UM professors ignore that it is the Minister of Transportation who should have defined the objectives in this case?  That would have permitted all kinds of transportation options be considered. 

Crowded highways in Colombo

The UM team somehow cooked up two other alternatives: 1) improving the existing highway to the South (A2 road) and, 2) improving the existing railway, and they were considered along with the proposed expressway.   Nevertheless, given the RDA-defined objectives, the railway option was born dead and received only lip service throughout the document.  Yet, the UM group should be commended for a fairly thorough analysis made on the proposed project, working within severe limitations, and for providing a very readable and informative document. 

Our critique on the RDA proposal is based on the premise that, given the local socioeconomic and political culture, could this road be made really an expressway? We will review the philosophy behind the project, check the design for conflicts of practicality and audit the project cost, in trying to make it functional -technically, environmentally and politically.  Finally we would glimpse at other options that may satisfy at least the first RDA objective. (A detailed analysis of those possibilities should be the subject of an equitably funded technical study.)  

Nobody with a sane mind would object to an effort on improving the snail-paced traffic on the existing A2 road, even though a design speed of 100 km/h, as planned in the expressway project, would raise some eyebrows.  Probably so, it is proposed to be of “limited access”, which will be made effective by permitting only a limited number of interchanges and by fencing off the road.  This is clearly a text book solution, but only valid for a country where people move around in motor vehicles, or where the population density is very low.  However, within the most densely populated region of Sri Lanka, where the most common modes of transport are walking and bicycling, has this solution any validity?  Even with the most elaborate fencing and with strict policing, if we can’t keep the Olcott Mawatha (a main artery in Colombo Fort) clear of pedestrians, wouldn’t this “expressway” be a daydream? 

The proposal speaks of 38 overpasses and 29 underpasses.  Even if all were to be built, those account for only one crossing for every two kilometers.  Would a local farmer walk his cows or water buffaloes 2000m around, when only he has to go 40m across the “expressway”, however risky it is?  Since the extent of the service roads promised (75 km) is far short of the need (to cover either side of the 125 km “expressway”), would not a cyclist choose the wide shoulder of the “expressway” to get to his destination South or North?  Consider these, in addition to the havoc that would be created by tire-shops or tea shops, that would mushroom by the “expressway” shoulder, sheltered by the current lawlessness in the country.  So, wouldn’t this become another crawl-way, a fancy one all the same?

Road side Tea-shop

The proposed road trace is located some 10 km inland, parallel to the current A2 road which straddle the coast, hence running pretty much across the paddy fields or the marshy lands that serve as flood retention areas.  The simplest way and the cheapest, in the short run, to create a 40m wide road is to build it on earth embankments, made by filling the lowlands, and that’s what the project proposes.  Who, then, would be responsible for blocking the water flow paths and thus increasing the risks of flooding?  We strongly doubt that the local rural folk would be ready to pay such a high price for “development” and keep quiet, especially since this “expressway” would serve not them, but the intercity traffic. 

Sheet-flood Irrigation in paddy fields - no drainage canals exist

One can provide cross drainage structures as a solution, but how many?  The A2 road is said to have 228 of them, but given that the streams are much more branched out further inland, simply allowing for natural drainage paths would become prohibitively expensive.  If one also has to design drainage structure to accommodate a 50-year flood, as recommended by the E.I.A., it may be cheaper to build the road elevated, on piers, over the marshy lands.  The proposed trace divides large paddy fields (yayas), and allowing for proper drainage from the fields on one side of the road to the other becomes a problem too.  Traditional Sri Lankan lowland rice cultivation technique calls for sheet-flow drainage –a slow moving, thin layer of water that covers the entire field (liyadda), and collector canals are hardly used for drainage.  Thus, to avoid water stagnating upstream, a road embankment should provide frequent wide drainage openings, which, again, calls for an elevated roadway.  The UM team, recognizing this problem, has recommended that at least half the length of paddy/marshy field crossings be constructed elevated, which nearly doubled (to Rs. 28 billion) the already sky-high project budget!

The E.I.A. doesn’t really provide data on who the eventual users of this “expressway” will be, probably because it is useless projecting traffic data so far ahead, based on imaginary development projects, given the highly uncertain political climate of the country.  Nor is it clear whether the road will be a toll-way, because it does not include any such revenue in the cost-benefit analysis.  The benefits of the project are estimated as the would-be expenses saved by: 1) the users switching to the new road and, 2) by the non-occurrence of accidents there, all provided that the “expressway” functions as such.  Since these “benefits” could not offset even the costs of the basic project, other benefits were also taken into account.  They are: 3) the business tax revenues (some interesting calculations!) of the “new townships” that would mushroom around the interchanges and, 4) the property value increases along the “expressway” (good only for mental illusions, in highly immobile societies like Sri Lanka!).  These were compared against the basic cost plus the costs of mitigating the problems such as human displacement, noise and drainage.  Finally, the economists arrived at a “reasonable” Rate of Return for the project, only after they abandoned the partly elevated highway solution, proposed to mitigate the drainage problems!  When you leave the numerical gimmicks aside, one question clearly comes to mind: won’t we be erecting another MONUMENT TO IGNORANCE?  Haven’t we had enough, yet?

Street traffic

Solving transportation problems in high density regions like Southwestern Sri Lanka, with widely varying transport modalities and an extremely undisciplined traffic, requires highly innovative solutions, applied with persistence and patience.  Inculcating some discipline among all road users is the best strategy to begin with.  At least within major city limits, we should fence the walkways, prohibit roadside parking and making right turns during busy hours (should provide alternatives).  If that can be combined with strict and frequent policing (without giving into financial and political pressures), even the existing A2 highway would carry more than twice its current traffic load.  To speed up intercity road traffic there, bypasses should be provided around intermediate urban centers.  Building elevated bypasses, probably located above the existing railway, could be an effective, but expensive, solution.

Reliable mass transit systems, based on truly limited-access paths, like railways, are the only means of guaranteeing transit while reducing congestion, in a society like ours.  Even within the current dilapidated rail system, if another frequency or two could be added to the express trains in the Southern corridor, the demand for buses would be substantially reduced.  When the current plans for electrifying the signals and extending the double rail line South to Aluthgama are finished, the railway capacity could be heavily increased.  This should be accompanied by modifying its goods transport capacity to include container traffic, at least between major terminals, because rail transportation of goods is often proved to be the most economical. 

Crowded train stations

Another option is developing the Koggala airstrip (in the South) as an international cargo facility, an alternative to Colombo, if there is sufficient demand for import/export in the area.  Meanwhile, light plane operators could be encouraged to provide regular services to smaller airstrips in the South, to cater to the high-flying international industrialists, wooed vigorously by the Government.

As one can see, transportation solutions are as abundant as the problems.  What we lack is the courage to try and be persistent.  If someone is still pushing for a monumental project to become immortalized, let’s hear it!  We already have paid dearly for enthroning such fools!

- July 1999.

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