The CKE gets you there in 50 minutes. Is it sustainable with a partial toll?

Posted: August 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

Last week, Sri Lanka has secured US $500 million from Asian Development Bank (ADB) for the much needed Colombo-Kandy Expressway (CKE) linking of course, Colombo and the central hill city of Kandy.

Roads, the backbone of our transport sector, account for 92% of freight & passenger traffic in Sri Lanka. We have a total road network of around 100,000km. Of this, 11000 km are considered as national highways, classified as ‘Class A’ and ‘B’ categories. There are 25 motor vehicles per 100 persons (est.), with 21067 million passenger-km reported. The road density in Sri Lanka stood at 1.6 km of roads per every square km (2009) which is higher compared to that of other countries in the region, according to the Central Bank.

The current Colombo-Kandy trunk road, called as A1, was Sri Lanka’s first modern road. Taking 11 years to complete, it was endowed to us by the British in 1932.  The current distance between the two cities is 115km (72 miles) and the ‘A1’ stretch often results in severe traffic congestions, especially for oncoming traffic towards the capital.

Also, despite being a trunk road, it is often narrow, thereby preventing fast driving- in fact, in urban areas, the traffic on A1 slows down to less than 10kms an hour. Thus, an expressway has been mooted for some time, and now funds secured, plans drawn and baseline schedules are ready for a Colombo-Kandy Expressway (CKE).

What’s an expressway? An expressway is a cordoned off, spacious, multi-lane road restricted to vehicles (only) that are able to reach speeds of over 100 kmph. No bicycles, three wheelers/tuk-tuks, bullock carts, pedestrians, roadside ‘plain tea shops’ and stray puppies suddenly hopping to the front of your vehicle. The purpose of an expressway is to minimize the time needed to reach a destination-simply to get you from point A to point B. As a result, the access to the expressway is not ‘open’ like our roads-in that, both entry and exit points are ‘controlled’ and one cannot just enter or connect to the expressway from any spot choose (or even from a ‘by-lane’) as they wish. Also, a special set of driving signs are used in expressways. Instead of ‘junctions’, an expressway has ‘interchanges’. Interchanges are not mere junctions as seen in our roads. Traffic from various directions do not flow into the main junction at once and clog the expressway in an interchange. Instead, the roads flowing into the centre-point from other directions cut across each other above or below them in a ‘flyover style’, thereby ‘interchanging’ each other. These interchanges come in various ‘levels’ of bypassing the crossing roads/expressways –the levels being the number of other roads that fall above and below them in the interchange-sometimes four levels.

What is important to understand is that it is from these interchanges that the driver can get off the expressway-not just anyplace as we do now! Most importantly, expressways also have one additional feature: the toll gate! The drivers pay a usage fee when they enter and while on the expressway.

The CKE will be linking Colombo and central hill town of Kandy and will consist of four lanes initially, and later to be expanded to six lanes. The expressway will facilitate vehicle speeds of 110 km an hour. Its stretch is expected to be 98km and will reduce more than three hours’ current travel time down to 50 minutes. The expressway however, does not exactly terminate in the midst of both cities but will start a few kilometers away from them-from Colombo’s end, it starts at Kadawatha and at Kandy’s end, ends at Katugasthota. A challenge for the project manager is that the CKE is not limited to an ‘urban only’ setting. It cuts across both urban and rurals. But even more importantly, it is an expressway that elevates to 450+ metres (1500 ft) above sea level as it arrives at its last interchange, Katugasthota. It therefore effectively navigates the majority of the western slope of Sri Lanka.

Since there are issues in land acquisition for construction, the expressway will be built as an elevated expressway hosted on a concrete wire bridge ‘duct’, some parts of which could possibly be built on top of the current A1 stretch itself. The construction project is scheduled to span four years, and will be in two phases. According to the initial project plan, Phase I is 48.2 km in length (4 lane elevated) from Kadawatha to Ambepussa and will be expanded to six lanes later.  Phase II will be constructed from Ambepussa to Katugastota and 50+ km in length (4 lanes elevated). CKE will consist of 10 interchanges – Kadawata, Gampaha, Balabowa, Mirigama, Ambepussa, Dewalegama, Rambukkana, Hatharaliyadda, Hedeniya,and Katugastota. The traffic flow from Kurunegala will converge into the expressway at the Ambepussa interchange.

The new expressway, once completed, may not entirely be for ‘free use’ however. It will be a fee levying toll way, at least partially. According to Media Minister Kehaliya Rambukkwelle, at least in its first stretch, a toll will be implemented, even if the expressway is solely operated by the government and not as a Public Private Partnership (PPP). Usually, the toll rate of an expressway is decided on such factors as the project financing costs, repayment time of project loans, projected expressway traffic,  the level of technology used in the toll mechanism, and the cost of toll operations, future road maintenance costs etc. Different toll bases are used in different countries. For instance, in India, the toll rates are fixed by the government and it is inflation linked. The Indian expressway operator has no control over the toll rates. The practice of toll in other countries also shows that different vehicles are charged different fees per km (Eg: A passenger van is charged less than a container truck), and Sri Lanka’s case will be no different.

What could be the base toll rate? The planned toll rates for CKE are not known (or even not calculated yet), but if planned toll packages for the Southern expressway is any indication, then we can assume it to be between Rs. 3.00 to 5.00 per km (the toll package planned for the Southern Expressway takes a minimum charge of Rs.3.00 per kilometer. According to Ministry of Highways, the new toll system would be introduced to cover the highway construction expenses).

There is no doubt that the toll will help this expressway’s future and, is a necessity-just as the expressway itself. The toll will not only help self financing of the expressway in the long run thereby enabling its high standards of maintenance required, but will even reduce needless and extra vehicles taking to the road thereby clearing way for high speed travel. On the other hand, imagine this vital expressway being maintained by the various Pradeshiya Sabha’s (etc) along its stretch, based on their own road tax collections-what a nightmare!

What is important to understand is whether a Rs. 5.00 per/km rate will justify the Return on Investment (ROI) of the CKE. Despite Sri Lanka saying the CKE’s initial handler, the consortium of Malaysian firms (CML-MTD) was slow in construction and as a result the project was taken over from them, it is understood that the Malaysians simply pulled out since the revenue projections from toll earnings were unsatisfactory. However, as it stands now, the government will be operating the CKE on its own and will only implement a partial toll which is good news. But on the other hand, low revenue from a partial toll may not be sufficient in maintaining the CKE at real expressway standards, for it to be viable over the long term. If the CKE would not be maintained in that standards, then it is no longer an “expressway” but  just another trunk road.

Therefore, an unpopular suggestion needs to be made-that, the operator should charge the full toll required to cover the ROI within its given timeline. But how do we manage such a high toll?

A practical solution may be in the railways. In that, we know that a faster railway connection to Kandy too is a much needed solution. CKE brings in the tantalizing possibility of a combined ‘rail and highway’ to Kandy using CKE infrastructure itself. This is made possible by the elevated infrastructure, and it’s only a matter of widening the wire duct expanse to accommodate the railway, which will invariably be a passengers only ‘light railway’, preferably in dual track. Such a light track will enormously enhance the utility of the CKE since the rail stations could also be installed wherever the interchanges fail to serve the passenger traffic. More importantly, the revenue from this rail track could be used to a great extent to subsidize the expressway toll.

Then the only issue is to find a funder for the light railway. If the light rail revenue projections are good, then a PPP too could be implemented. Alternatively, we could easily surmise that possibly the Government of China can & also be willing to fund the construction.

Minister of Highways & Road Development-Over to you, Sir!

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