Roads connect people and places. They are the lifeblood of any modern economy. We just cannot imagine life without them. Sri Lanka, ranked 121st in the world in terms of size (just 65,610 Sq Km), has the 43rd biggest road network inclusive of unpaved roads. Many bigger, more developed countries rank below Sri Lanka in terms of total road length.
Still, we have a problem. We are literally running out of roads, because they cannot cope with the sheer number of new vehicles being registered every day. There are now more than six million vehicles in circulation and every month, more than 3,000 passenger cars alone enter the roads, not counting other vehicle categories.
Our policy planners have addressed this issue in several ways: Adding expressways for those willing to go faster by paying a reasonable fee, widening and repairing existing roads, building entirely new toll free roads, building flyovers (Rajagiriya, Ganemulla, Polgahawela) and underpasses (Kandy) in busy city junctions and most recently designating bus lanes during morning and evening rush hours. The Ministry of Highways and Higher Education and the Road Development Authority are the lead agencies for these tasks along with the Megapolis Ministry for certain aspects.
But one problem in our part of the world is that projects which begin with much fanfare take ages to complete, due to bureaucratic bungling and red tape, legal and logistical issues, sheer lethargy and sometimes, an element of corruption. This is why periodic reviews of such initiatives are essential.
This is exactly what President Maithripala Sirisena did on Thursday when he met ministers and officials engaged in this sector for a lengthy review and discussion. He rightly emphasized the need for a National Policy on Highways to ensure that there will be no changes from time to time when construction of such roads is being carried out.
The new Government has essentially continued the road projects initiated by the previous one after a thorough review of their financial terms and status. This was a must, given the widespread accusations of corruption and excessive cost estimates in road projects during that period. The new Government did manage to renegotiate the terms of some projects, saving a substantial amount of foreign exchange in the process. Getting local subcontractors for most of the road packages is another victory.
The Government has launched several new expressway and highway projects, some of which are already under construction. President Sirisena inquired regarding ongoing construction work of these expressways and the renovation work of existing major and minor roads.
The gathering was told that the construction of the section from Meerigama to Kurunegala and the section from Kadawatha to Meerigama of the Central Expressway will be completed by September 2019 and 50 percent of the construction work of the section from Kadawatha to Kerawalapitiya will be completed by the end of this year. The plan for the Northern Expressway has been formulated under the road development projects in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and the Government of India has expressed its consent to provide loans for this project. Encouraging news indeed.
A National Policy on Highways as envisaged by the President will essentially mean that no future Government will be able to cancel or change existing road development projects without a valid reason and a solid explanation to the public. In fact, the President urged the relevant authorities to update the public on the ongoing road construction projects in a timely and transparent manner. This will earn them more confidence from the public.
One cannot blame lawmakers, the public and even the officials for their obsession with flyovers and expressways, but they must spare a thought for rural folk, like the President did at the progress review meeting. Watch any TV news bulletin at night and you are likely to see a segment highlighting a village that has no real access road or connecting bridge at all. This should not be the case in the 21st century. The President has stressed the importance of improving the rural road network – there is no use of building better roads for the city if the villager cannot access that road to bring his produce to the city or transport a patient to the city hospital. In some areas, there is a lack of clarity over exactly who is responsible for maintaining rural roads – whether it is the Provincial Council, Pradeshiya Sabha or the Central Government. Such bureaucratic issues must be resolved for the benefit of the public.
Ultimately, there is a limit to the number of roads that can be built. There are two approaches to fix this problem - traffic management and better public transport. The success of the bus lane experiment shows that traffic management measures can work if discipline is enforced. Public transport is even more important, because a comfortable, efficient and clean mass transit network such as the proposed Light Rail Transit can potentially entice motorists to leave their cars at home at least for the office run and make our roads less of a nightmare.
Daily News, September 18, 2017