Sri Lanka gets first expressway, toll-financed

November 29, 2011

Sri Lanka, the ancient tropical island nation of 20 million people off the southern tip of India got its first expressway at the weekend, a 60 mile, 95km Southern Expressway between Colombo,  the country's capital city and largest metro area in the middle west coast and Galle on the southwest corner of the island. Built by the national government it has cash toll plazas to raise money to defray some $495m borrowed from aid agencies to finance the $700m project.

Led by Singapore and Malaysia, now Indonesia, India, Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan, most south and southeast Asian countries have active toll expressway programs now covering thousands of miles - many investor toll concessions, others state enterprises. But Sri Lanka lagged.

The country was wracked by a protracted and vicious civil war waged by a marxist Tamil 'Tiger' minority. There was also a softer socialist antipathy to private motor vehicles and roads that catered to their use.

Little was possible by way of roadbuilding until the terrorists were defeated, and a pro-development government elected just a few years ago.

2x2 lanes of full expressway

The Southern Expressway is 2x2 lanes full expressway standard with eight interchanges. Travel times Colombo to Galle are cut from 3.5 hours to less than 1.5 hours, and safety greatly improved.

Five to ten miles inland of the coast the new 'Southern Expressway" parallels an old mostly 2 lane road forming the main street of many coastal towns and villages.  The interchanges of the new highway are designed to be  magnets for new development - residential and commercial - as well as catering to traffic not needing to be on the coastal 2-laner.

Extensions are planned from Galle to the east, including to a new international airport. The next 30km, 18 mile is due for opening by end-2013.

Construction problems

Construction of the expressway just opened was by a China Harbour Enginneering Company and was not without incident. Two bridges collapsed during construction, the opening was more than a year late, and cost was about double that estimated.

At the opening ceremony while most speakers lavished praise on the new highway a leftist member of the coalition government the minister for housing said it had been built "with a disregard for environmental and social impacts."

Reports suggest that most of the reaction has been positive however.

They staged elaborate ceremonies, the highway being blessed according to the practices of the country's several religions, patriotic songs were sung and a thousand drummers beat out a traditional celebration.

The highway is strictly a motorway - for 4 wheel plus motor vehicles that can take full advantage of it - so there is a prohibition on cyclists, farm tractors, light three-wheelers, motorbikes, animal drawn vehicles and pedestrians. Signs are in Sinhalese, Tamil and English and this is a land of long names.

The toll is the equivalent of about $20.00 for the full 62 miles and for single segments $4.00 - using a ticket system and toll points off the mainline.

Critics have noted the narrow (1.7m) breakdown shoulders. There are apparently also occasional pull-off areas. There's a median barrier but it looks unforgivingly close to the fast lane. But these are picky points, given the advance over existing roads.

President drives himself

The president of the country Mahinda Rajapaksa conducted ceremonies at several points along the expressway at the weekend, making speeches at several.  He took the first toll ticket and drove himself.  

Rajapaksa said that only a few years ago he had been told he could only travel to Madhu in the north of the county with the permission of the LTTE separatists. He said he had refused to seek permission to travel, saying he would wait to travel to Madhu until he could do it "without permission from anyone."

"Bringing country together"

In his major speech he said the whole country would be united through a network of expressways. By bringing together the different regions of the country the expressways would make for closer links between different communities overcoming 'petty separatism' and 'ethnic division.' Expressways would provide economic opportunity and, he hoped, the private sector would respond.

He wanted expressways to be developed next from Colombo  to the hill resort city of Kandy in the interior of the country and from Colombo to Jaffna on the northern tip of the island nation. This trip which presently takes ten hours should be made in three. Tourism, commerce and manufacturing could be stimulated by modern roads, other speakers said.

Pineapple-shaped, the island nation is 25,300 square miles (similar in area to SC, WV) and 275 miles, 440km north to south and 135 miles, 215km across east-west at its widest point.

Fixed link to India one day

A 23 mile, 37km long bridge would be needed to provide a fixed crossing to India and the Asian landmass. There is an active ferry operation currently.

The country has a proud human history with a literature and civilization going back several millennia.

From 1830 to 1948 it was part of British India and has the beneficent British heritage of universal suffrage, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, and government by consent. 

Early commercial connection to the world economy came via the East India Company's 19th century sponsorship of tea cultivation in the mountains and the international trade in tea that is still a staple of the economy.

PERSONAL: your editor spent a wonderful day in Ceylon (as Sri Lnka was then) at about age 12 (1952) when his family's steamship between London and Melbourne docked in Colombo for a day after traveling the Suez Canal. We took a bus up to Kandy in the mountains, a memorable ride.

There were so few motor vehicles then the notion of a motorway would have been absurd.

Most common were bullock drawn vehicles for goods and human drawn rickshaws or pedicabs for people. There were very slow steam trains on narrow gauge track.

On the roads then, there were more elephants used for heavy transport than gasoline or diesel engined trucks.

TOLLROADSnews 2011-11-28

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