Kandy Road Tunnel Project to be Abandoned?

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Created on Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Kandy News has learned from reliable sources that the government has given up on the proposal to build a 5.5 km road tunnel linking Thannekumbura to the east of the town with Getembe to the west of the town. The main purpose of the tunnel would have been to allow through traffic to avoid the town. Our sources say that the Greater Kandy Development Sub-Committee that Minister for Special Assignments Sarath Amunugama chairs took the decision. The other members of the committee are cabinet ministers Lakshman Kiriella, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Malik Samarawickrama, Rauf Hakim, S. B Dissanayaka, M H A Haleem and Sarath Fonseka and the Chief Minister of the Central Provincial Council Sarath Ekanayake. 

The Uma Oya tunnel under constructionThe Uma Oya tunnel under constructionThe environmental crisis that has arisen as a result of the Uma Oya tunnel in the Badulla District that is still under construction may have been the proximate cause for the abandonment of the Kandy road tunnel. There is public concern that the tunnel may adversely affect the historic Temple of the Tooth and the Kandy Lake. However, since no official statement has been made that the proposal for a road tunnel has been scrapped it is worth probing the pluses and minuses of the proposal in greater depth.

The main justification for constructing the tunnel is geography; the mountainous Hantana terrain does not permit the construction of a direct bypass road to link Digana that is located to the southeast of the city with Getembe that is located to the southwest. The tunnel is to be financed with a loan of Rs 37,500m from South Korea. The money would come from a $300m soft loan that South Korea is to make available to Sri Lanka under an agreement signed in July 2016. Assuming that the rate of interest is only 0.5%, the interest payment alone in year one would be Rs 188m. If the principal were to be repaid in equal annual installments over 40 years, the principal for one year would be Rs 938 million, and the total payment for year one would be Rs 1,126m ($7.5m). An additional amount has to be set aside for maintenance of the tunnel. The government that is currently facing a major fiscal crisis will find this a particularly daunting proposition.

The Clock Tower Bus StationThe Clock Tower Bus StationThe tunnel will yield an income from user fees. However, it is unlikely to be financially profitable, at least in the initial stages. It is estimated that in 2014 the two-way traffic from Buwelikada that is located to the east of the town was around 25,000 vehicles carrying about 115,000 people. Assuming that a fee of Rs 100 is levied from each vehicle the gross daily income would be Rs 2.5m, monthly income Rs 75m, and the annual income Rs  900m. If the number of vehicles that opt to use the tunnel falls below 25,000 the income will be less. More importantly, it may be difficult to levy Rs 100 for the use of a tunnel that is only 5.5 km. If only Rs 50 is charged the estimated income will be cut in half. By way of comparison, the monthly gross earnings of the Southern Expressway are only about Rs 500m and Rs 120m of that sum has to be spent for maintenance. Thus, the likely direct earnings from the proposed road tunnel in Kandy are not that promising.

But projects of this nature cannot be decided based entirely on the direct financial costs and benefits. There are indirect financial and non-financial benefits that must be factored in. The tunnel will ease the traffic congestion in the city centre helping to reduce air pollution. Motorists will save on fuel and time. Improved traffic in Kandy will attract more investment leading to more jobs and higher incomes.

But it is the responsibility of politicians in power who take decisions to examine whether such benefits can be derived using alternative solutions to the traffic problem. The tunnel will cost about Rs 6800m per km. The 95 km Kottawa-Pinnaduwa stretch of the Southern Expressway that opened in November 2011 cost Rs 1,000m per km. The Colombo-Katunayaka expressway that opened in October 2013 cost Rs 1,800 per km. A tunnel will inevitably cost more. Therefore it is worth considering cheaper alternative solutions that may be available for Kandy.

One option is to widen and improve the existing roads while making new additions where necessary to create by-pass ("beltway”) roads to direct traffic that need not come to the city centre. For example, Digana and Getembe can be linked with a road that runs through Madawala, Katugastota and Guhagoda. Katugastota and Tennekumbura can be linked with a road that runs via Buwelikada, Lewella, Mavilmada and Nittawela.

It is also possible to create main bus stations in the peripheral towns such as Peradeniya, Thennekumbura/Digana, Ampitiya and Katugastota and run a shuttle service to the city centre either free of charge or for a nominal fare.

Traffic congestion in the Kandy city centre can be eased with bypass roads. But improving the roads to the city centre and constructing multi-story car parks in the city do not necessarily ease congestion. It may have the opposite effect of attracting more traffic to the city. The long-term solution is to move commercial and service activities from the city centre to the periphery. Incentives can be given for wholesale and retail traders to move out. Some of the schools that have been established in the city in more recent times can be relocated to the periphery. The established old schools can be encouraged to have primary schools in the periphery. The central government and the provincial council too can decentralize activities so that the public has easier access to such services in the areas where they reside and work. Ideally, wherever possible, digital technology should be used to make visits to offices redundant.

The Kandy General Hospital and the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital have become very large facilities. The health authorities have to reexamine this model. Large multidisciplinary hospitals have some advantages, especially for teaching and research. Installing expensive medical equipment in centralized locations makes good economic sense. But very large hospitals also bring diseconomies of scale. More importantly, making patients travel long distances should be avoided wherever possible in a patient-centred  healthcare system. The solution is to develop hospitals in the neighboring towns such as Gampola, Nawalapitiya, Kadugannawa and Digana that are capable of treating patients for common illnesses.

 

All of the above can be done only if a well-integrated development plan is prepared and executed for the Greater Kandy area. However, Sri Lanka’s weak governance jeopardizes even the best of plans. William Gopallaw Mawatha is a good example. In 1989, at the time of its construction, the government issued a circular prohibiting the construction of any buildings that would have direct access to the road. The idea was to ensure that the road would provide unimpeded access for vehicles to the Kandy city. The regulation was breached from the get-go. Today Gopallawa Mawatha is yet another ordinary road with familiar “Ribbon” development. It is very likely that undue political interference, bribery and corruption played a big role in this.

A senior road engineer who spoke with The Kandy News argued that the tunnel should be built, the high cost notwithstanding, if there is no threat to the environment, Temple of the Tooth or the Kandy Lake. He asserted that whatever the good intentions of the planners might be, bypass roads would eventually fall victim to ribbon development and go the same way as Gopallawa Mawatha. If true, what it means is that Sri Lanka’s governance simply lacks the honesty, accountability and discipline to undertake planned and systematic development. The available evidence suggests that there is some truth in the argument.

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