Expressways have failed to solve Sri Lanka’s traffic problem; but, they can be a major solution if governments are bold
Posted on November 21st, 2021

Chanaka Bandarage

Sri Lanka has one of Asia’s worst traffic problems. Prior to Corona, it was a nightmarish exercise to drive around Colombo during peak hours. In Colombo, people spent long hours in vehicles to travel from one place to another. Eg: prior to Corona, it took about 120 minutes to drive from Athurugiriya to Colombo Fort during peak hours. It is a distance of mere 21 km.  Thanks to   Corona the traffic flow has drastically reduced.  But, Corona is only a temporary solution.

Traffic is common to many world’s big cities. But, modern cities have well coped with the problem. Colombo is notorious for its bumper to bumper traffic. This is common in all areas of the city even now; it is particularly bad in Duplication Road, Wellawatte, Dehiwela, Borella, Orugodawatta, Rajagiriya and Colombo 12 -15 areas.  The problem in these areas is that traffic stays stagnant for extra-ordinarily long times or move exceptionally slowly.

After the war, the governments believed that building of expressways was the best solution to solve Sri Lanka’s traffic problem; they also foolishly thought that expressways would bring economic prosperity. It has now been proven that this belief was misconceived. Despite the expressways, the major cities continue to have major traffic problems. And, the economy did not improve.

True, expressways did solve some transport problems.  Eg: a person can now drive from Kottawa to Mathara within 2 hours (this used to be a 4 hour trip). Then, the travel time between Peliyagoda interchange to Katunayake airport is now about 30 minutes (this used to be a 90 minute trip).

Work on the Kandy expressway and the Colombo Outer Circular Road is largely finished.

The Katunayake (Airport) expressway was a must; it was a long felt need. It was completed in 2013. The then government must be congratulated for doing it successfully.

But, the fact of the matter is that expressways have caused enormous economic and environmental problems. In some instances expressways have created new traffic problems.

This paper intends to analyse the expressways’ negative impact on Sri Lanka and how they can be used to effectively solve Sri Lanka’s massive traffic problem.

All recent governments rushed to believe that expressways is the solution to enhance the country’s GDP growth. They borrowed money heavily from overseas banks on high interest rates.

Again, expressways failed to deliver the rapid economic development that the governments had anticipated.

The governments failed to realise that like tea, rubber, fishery, garments, agriculture, small industry etc roads cannot bring in direct foreign investment ($) to the country. Expressways is a non-essential capital investment. Subject to strict environmental guidelines, they are good to build when the country’s economy is healthy. Today, the country is struggling to feed its people due to lack of foreign currency ($) to import essential foods like sugar, wheat and onions etc.  In such a situation it is insane to go spending billions of rupees to build more and more expressways.

Instead of spending the borrowed dollars on expressways (some expressway projects are white elephants), if they were given as micro loans to disadvantaged people to start self-employment projects, that would have been very healthy to the GDP. But, corrupt politicians are obsessed with building these concrete jungles, they are an easy way for them to steal part of the borrowed money to fatten their bank accounts.

The writer states that expressways have benefitted only a privileged minority. It is a fact that more than 60% of the country’s vehicles are excluded from expressways. This issue is addressed in detail later.

It was reported in the media that the present government intends to construct/extend at least four expressways. As stated before, the burning transport problem of Sri Lanka is not the lack of expressways but the lengthy traffic jams in major cities especially Colombo. Not only that the expressways have failed to solve this massive problem; they have created bottlenecks that acerbated the existing problem.

In Colombo, reaching the expressway entry points is a herculean task. It took 90/120 minutes for a person to drive from Borella to Athurugiriya/Kottawa Southern expressway entry points (prior to Corona). The time saved by faster driving on the Southern expressway is wasted by the enormous extra driving one has to make, also the lengthy delays at entry points.

We are neither a continent nor a large country; but a tiny island nation in the size of 65,600 sq km. Sri Lanka only has a maximum length of 268 miles (432 km) and a maximum width of 139 (224 km) miles.  Expressways are best for large countries. What Sri Lanka requires is a well carpeted network of roads everywhere, including in rural areas. Preferably they should at least be dual track each side on main highways (this is what they are currently doing everywhere in Galle Road). There are lots of dilapidated roads in the interior that requires immediate attention. 

Instead of spending large amounts of money on expressways that will extend to very remote areas, the governments should have given top priority to fixing the traffic problem in Colombo and other major cities like Kandy, Kurunegala, Galle, Mathara, Negambo etc.

To ease the huge traffic congestion in major cities especially Colombo we require efficient, computerized traffic lights, wider streets, new alternative roads/overhead bridges (flyovers). We must consider building underground road tunnels and sometimes overhead roads.  The Colombo Outer Circular Road is a good initiative. Parking should be banned on all main roads. The road side parking spaces should be amalgamated to main roads. New multi-storey car parks as private ventures must be erected to park vehicles.

Improvement of public transport is a must to reduce the traffic flow. Then, people will leave their vehicles home and start using SLTB/private buses and trains. Currently the public transport facilities are most appalling. We still have a 1970/80 style public transport system. In this 2021, people travel in rickety old buses and trains, jampacked. Surely they deserve better.  The governments should ensure that every passenger will have a seat in public transport (Malaysia is an example).

An underground Metro rail system is good but the cost of such a project is astronomical. The advantage of the underground Metros is that they are linked with the existing railway system.

Light rail will not solve Colombo’s traffic problem. It is unlikely that people will leave cars at home and board the light rail to travel to work. People are obsessed with their cars and are too lazy to substitute car travel with any other mode of transport.

Empirical evidence shows that those who are addicted to cars will continue to use them whatever the good alternative provided to them. This same rationale applies to motorcycle/scooter riders. Mumbai, Bangkok, Kuala Lampur – all have above the ground Light Rail.  They still have very bad vehicular traffic problems.

What Light Rail would do is to take over some of the existing omnibus loads. This means if Light Rail is to reduce Colombo’s traffic that would only be in relation to reducing some omnibus operations. It is not worthwhile to spend such a lot of money for such a small advantage.

Light Rail will cause huge environmental and logistical problems. It will take several years to complete the 1st stage of the Light Rail. During the construction period, the traffic problem from Malabe to Fort via Rajagiriya and Borella would increase by tenfold. This congestion will flow on to other parts of the City. 

Due to lack of sunlight the ground underneath the Light Rail concrete slab is always dark; also that valuable area is unproductive (note areas under Colombo flyovers – Dematagoda, Nugegoda, Dehiwala; under the Katunayake expressway in Ragama; under the Light Rail tracks in Mumbai/Bangkok). Light Rail introduces a new darkness to the environment; the brightness in the townships will end.

Large, dark swaths of land that lie under the giant concrete structures of the Southern and Katunayake expressways (due to lack of sunlight) are now unproductive and cannot be used for any purpose. They are eyesores too.

Sri Lanka’s traffic jams are a major impediment in attracting foreign investment and tourists. No one wants to spend long hours in traffic jams.

The governments have been slack on developing/upgrading interior roads of towns/villages. The previous government’s ‘Gamperaliya’ project which was introduced in its final year did a good job in this regard.

As outlined before, most of the rural roads are still not tarmacked/concreted. They are in pathetic condition especially after torrential rains.

When town/rural roads are improved, farmers are able to sell their produce speedily at reasonable prices as trucks and lorries would be able to reach villages directly/easily.

Owing to the Southern expressway one could see how fertile rubber estates and paddy fields have been divided into two. As a result, apart from the environmental degradation, the adverse impact to the economy is huge. Some of these estates have become more or less useless in value.

As the expressways cut forest lands into two, wildlife become stuck on both sides. This has serious problems in their mating and reaching breeding grounds. Some try to cross the expressways and die after becoming hit by speeding motor vehicles. It is sad to see carcasses of dead wildlife, especially of various alligators, iguanas, peacocks, butterflies, stray dogs, snake type serpents frequently on the expressways.

Now that a long road has been cut through the Sinharaja National Park – a World Heritage Site, one day it too could be connected to the Southern expressway. Then, that could be the end of Sinharaja?

A similar road is being constructed in Meemure in the Knuckles range. Meemure is dubbed Sri Lanka’s remotest village.

The new Buttala – Kataragama road (B35) that was built after the war (around 2012) has resulted in causing massive damage/disturbance to Yala wildlife, including wild elephants.

Cutting across vehicular roads through nature reserves means the gradual ending of them.

Due to the Southern expressway, the roadside businesses, especially restaurants that operate on the Galle Road had a huge economic setback. Even the temples such as Kaluthara Bodhi, Wewurukannala in Mathara and Tissamaharamaya now attract less pilgrims. These temples depend on public donations for survival and their revenues have significantly dwindled since inception of the Southern expressway. 

It has been reported that the loss of agricultural land as a result of the Kandy expressway is far worse than the Southern and Katunayake expressways combined together. These are some of Sri Lanka’s best fertile lands. Acres of valuable paddy, coconut and tea lands have been acquiesced for the project. Many people living on the sides of this expressway have lost valuable crop trees – coconut, jack, mango, coffee, cocoa and various spice crops such as cloves, cardamom, and pepper vines. The value of the lost produce is priceless. For many people these valuable trees were their livelihood. People have lost houses and some were uprooted from their original habitats and were settled elsewhere.

After the present government came to power a decision was taken to build an expressway from Kadawatha to Kurunegala. For this large swaths of very fertile private paddy, rubber lands and the natural environment went under the concrete and rubble. A person who travels by train from Veyangoda to Mirigama (especially on the right hand side) could see the damage this project has caused. The beautiful serene, natural environment that existed is gone/hidden. They are taken over by ugly concrete structures and the new tarmacked road.  Some waterways, anicuts, wildlife have obviously been badly affected. Local residents complain of massive flooding after major rains. Even Gampaha town submerges after massive rains. This has not happened before.

It is rumored that thanks to the Katunanayake expressway, politicians/top officials (from both sides of the politics) grabbed and acquired valuable state land for themselves. Even the most precious Muthurajawela marshy land was not spared. There are stories that the illegal land reclamation of Muthurajawela has secretly re-commenced. This is currently somewhat visible in Jaela, Delathara, Uswetakeiyyawa, Bopitiya, Pamunugama, and Wahatiyagama areas – how marshy lands have been filled. An Association must be formed urgently to stop this illegal land grab. The legal action initiated by His Eminence the Cardinal must be highly commended.

The writer states that there was no need to further extend the Mathara expressway.  There was simply not enough traffic to cater to from Mathara to Hambanthota and Mattala. The Katunayake expressway is also to be extended, the final destination is unknown. This is unnecessary. It is not necessary to extend the Kandy expressway beyond Kandy. There is absolutely no need to build a Northern expressway when vehicular traffic on the current A9, which is a well carpeted, modern road, is minimal.

Due to the new expressways are to be built/extended, it is feared that these forest/nature reserves, various parks, important areas could face serious environmental damage/destruction: Udawalawe Nature Reserve, Vitharakanda, Lunugamwehera, Madunagala, Weerawila, Kalamatiya, Nimalawa, Bundala, Ussangoda, Kataragama, Yala, Buddhangala, Ulpassa, Egodayaya,  Mahakandarawa, Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Ritigala, Somawathiya, Elahera, Bakamuna, Kaudulla, Chundikulama, Wilpattu, Yodawewa, Muthurajawela, Madhu Reserve, Bibile Nilgala and Pallekelle. Do we really want this to happen?

Contrary to what was anticipated, foreign tourists who travel to the south prefer taking the Galle Road instead of the Southern expressway. The former is more scenic, lively and refreshing (runs parallel to the coast).

It is sad to note that between Ambalangoda and Tangalle, tourist hotels and private residents have built huge boundary walls covering the sea view that was available from Galle/Weligama/Hambanthota main roads previously. The lack of proper regulations and vision are the reasons to lose same.

Now, back to the discriminatory aspect of the expressways – only about 20% of the country’s population – those who own a car/vehicle reap the benefit of expressways. A few luxury buses (who charge a higher fare) are allowed to carry passengers on expressways; meaning the poor who does intercity travel on ordinary buses are excluded.

Motorcycles, three wheelers and InterCity Buses comprise more than 60% of Sri Lanka’s registered motorized vehicles.  These three categories are excluded from expressways.

The fact that Sri Lanka’s expressways are confined only to high income earners is a clear anomaly. This is discriminatory (all people are paying off the massive foreign debts, borrowed to build the expressways).

Today it is true that vehicles do ply on expressways, but, most of the time they are empty.  In the night, expressways are like ‘ghost towns’. This is not so in developed countries. They are busy all the time. The volume of traffic is definitely insufficient.

On the other hand the roads that feed the expressways (ie, High Level Road, Galle Road, Kandy Road, Old (Avissawella) Road, Negambo Road etc) are jam-packed with vehicles especially with three wheelers, motorbikes and InterCity buses.  They should be allowed to ply on expressways.

Yes, expressways must be opened up for these vehicles (the 3 categories mentioned herein). This could be introduced as a pilot project for 3 months to assess the change. If successful, it should be made permanent.

Allowing three wheelers, motorbikes and InterCity buses to ply on the expressways will become a healthy source of revenue for the government (the government is hugely cash strapped). This will be a major solution to the country’s ever increasing traffic problem. The traffic on the main roads will significantly reduce as a result.

True some of the poor man’s vehicles may not be able to travel at the maximum speed of 100 km per hour, but it is not a serious issue.  For three wheelers, on expressways they can be restricted to the maximum speed at 70 km per hour.

In Sri Lanka, it is not a must that vehicles should drive on the expressways at the maximum speed. We are a small island nation, we can reach any destination by road within a relatively short period of time. What is required is to ensure a smooth flow of traffic on expressways.  Because there are no traffic lights on expressways, this could be achieved.

During very busy periods (April New Year, Christmas holidays) the three wheelers and motorbikes could largely be confined to the left lane or their access to the expressways can be totally stopped.

In regards to Australia and New Zealand, motorcycles and intercity buses are allowed to run on their expressways and they do not have three wheelers. Even cyclists, huge container lorries are allowed on their expressways. These two countries have only banned certain land vehicles (like tractors) and pedestrians from entering the expressways. Their highways are always busy (24/7) and earn terrific incomes for the governments.  The situation in most western countries is similar. They build their highways for all peoples, not just to a privileged few.

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