Colombo-Katunayake Expressway: From Rs. 5.5 billion to Rs. 50 billion

Friday, 25 October 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

After nearly 25 years of promises, the expressway connecting Colombo City with Katunayake International Airport is finally becoming a reality. The 25.8km long expressway is expected to reduce the current travel time of one to two hours to a mere 20 minutes; however, after the speedy run from the airport, getting to Colombo City from the Kelaniya bridge will continue to frustrate travellers. Past history The first attempt to develop a road to the airport was when Sri Lanka hosted the Non-Aligned Nations Conference in 1976, which was attended by a large number of Heads of State. During that time, the road from Peliyagoda to Katunayake was widened by the Road Development Authority (RDA) to a three-lane highway (perhaps the only three-lane road in the world). The RDA, being short of cash, argued that the rush of vehicles would be in one direction towards Colombo at the commencement of the event, and towards Katunayake on completion, and the centre lane would provide two lanes in the direction of travel. An incident occurred during the construction of this road which is well worth mentioning: The RDA wished to straighten the tight bend just prior to Wattala junction, and the road was straightened by a 500m new section running over the marsh. Construction was in progress, the road base was filled with earth and construction vehicles could pass over. However, there was a heavy rain overnight, and the next morning construction workers found that the new road segment had disappeared. A closer look showed that the road was there, but a few feet below the water level. The new road traversed a marsh which had a peat layer underneath, and filling the marsh imposed a load over the peat, which then collapsed. Marsh and peat A marsh is a wetland often found at the edges of lakes and streams, dominated by grasses, reeds or low-growing shrubs. Peat forms when plant material – usually in wet regions – is inhibited from decaying fully due to acidic and anaerobic conditions, and are formed over many thousands of years. Peat is spongy and easily compressed, and water is forced out of it when under pressure. Peat in Sri Lanka is of poor quality, but in Muthurajawela could be over 50 feet deep. What was encountered by the RDA in Wattala was only a minor formation of peat. Recent history In 1984, a feasibility study prepared by Japan International Cooperation Agency recommended the construction of an expressway to the east of the existing Colombo-Negombo road. The proposal was accepted for implementation by President Premadasa in 1989. The selected route avoided marshes, and was to pass over highlands ending up near the Free Trade Zone with a connection to the airport. The RDA’s avoidance of marshes would also have been guided by the road collapse at Wattala only a few years ago. RDA instituted a special unit for the design under a senior engineer, and the team toiled hard to complete the design to meet Premadasa’s deadline. However, the project was delayed due to Court action, when the Court decreed that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report needed to be prepared and acceptance be obtained prior to commencement of construction. Accordingly the review of the design, carrying out of EIA report and preparation of the tender documents was entrusted to Japan Bridge and Structure Institute Inc. According to the report, the four-lane dual-carriageway, designed for 100 kmph traffic (same as today’s completed road), 30 km in length, to connect the Free Trade Zone and the airport was estimated to cost Rs. 5,544 million or $ 110 million in 1991. The route was finalised, designs were completed, EIA was accepted and RDA was ready to commence acquisition of property for the expressway, when President Premadasa’s demise on May Day 1993 stopped all works. Presidential elections 1994 The expressway route was a hot topic during the presidential elections in 1994, with Chandrika Kumaratunga promising to abandon the land route that required the demolition of a large number of houses and shift the road over the Muthurajawela marshes. Kumaratunga won the elections and instructed the route to be moved. The Senior Engineer in charge of the designs resigned in disgust and found employment in Papua New Guinea. Proposal over Muthurajawela The route commenced from the marshes of Peliyagoda, passing over paddy fields and marshes to avoid built-up areas, crossed the Negombo road to the eastern edge of Muthurajawela – which necessitated traversing over populated sections, continued north generally parallel and sometimes over the Old Dutch Canal, over the eastern edge of Negombo Lagoon – with bridges over Dandugam Oya and Ja-ela – before finally turning eastwards, crossing the Negombo road to join the Canada Friendship Road. A major part of the route traversed flood plain and marshy ground consisting of soft peats, organic soils and clays up to 50 feet thick. The proposal received approval from the Cabinet of Ministers in August 1995, subject to an acceptable financing arrangement. Environmental aspects According to submissions made for the EIA report in 1995, the physical features of the project area included an expanse of 133 ha of Muthurajawela marsh wetland and the Negombo lagoon area. The submissions claimed that three alternate routes were considered: 1. The eastern overland route 2. Widening of the existing Negombo road and 3. Route over Muthurajawela marshes. The submission claimed that the last route was the most economical and most environmentally friendly; however, the submission failed to give figures or to substantiate their claim. The expressway passes through the ecologically sensitive habitats of wetlands to the north of Colombo, such as the Muthurajawela marsh, ponds, streams, brackish water swamps, network of canals and the Negombo lagoon, etc. Large quantities of sea-sand will be dredged off-shore to fill the roadway, and this may cause damage to coral reefs, bio-geographical habitats, etc. The expressway runs through the lagoon for a distance of 1.4 km and would isolate a narrow strip (3%) from the main lagoon area. Surprisingly, the so-called environmentalists only made minor submissions and did not protest on the encroachment into sensitive Muthurajawela, probably being aware of the massive construction costs envisaged. Communities mostly affected by the project in Muthurajawela area are shanties built by squatters, of which 130 houses and six small shops were to be relocated as their houses would be demolished. The remaining families (in 60 houses) were allowed to stay in the expressway reservation. Finally a total of nearly 700 houses were demolished for the construction. Failed contract International tenders were called for the construction of the expressway and the contract was awarded to the Daewoo-Keangnam joint venture from South Korea for Rs. 9,516 million in August 1999, shortly before the presidential elections when Chandrika Kumaratunga was re-elected. The Koreans were not the lowest tenderer and the award was marred by allegations of corruption. The Koreans commenced work on the project and pumped large volume of sea-sand for filling the road base. In November 2001, people of Uswetakeyyawa protested against off-shore sand dredging by the contractor, which people claimed disrupted their fishing. The public protest was suppressed by the Police who opened fire, killing three persons and seriously injuring two. With the changes on the political front, Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister in December 2001. The tight monitory policies of the new government reduced payments to the contractor and the progress slowed down, resulting mutually accepted termination in January 2003. The road foundation needed 4.7 million cubic metres of sea-sand and the contractor had already dredged 1.5 million cubic metres piled at Kerawalapitiya. In settlement, the contractor was paid Rs. 2,794 million, other expenses including consultancy services and land acquisition reached Rs. 2,650 million, making the total expenditure amount to Rs. 5,444 million. The contractor’s dredged sea-sand was handed over to Low Lying Areas Reclamation Board, which sold the sand containing more than 10 times the acceptable limit of chloride (in salt) to unsuspecting house builders. Chinese contractor The funding of the long-delayed project was then agreed with the Chinese Government with US $ 292.4 million on a loan facility extended by China. Chinese offer was for 85% of the project or US$ 252 million, with the Sri Lankan Government to fund the balance 15% or US$ 40 million. Based on the above, China Metallurgical Construction Group Corporation (MCC) submitted a financial proposal in March 2006, and the contract agreement was signed in May 2008 for the construction of the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway project, with work to commence in 60 days and to be completed in 39 months (November 2011). The Chinese Government owned company was to fund, plan, design and construct the 25.6 km long expressway for a cost of US$ 310 million (Rs. 35,600 million). Route The route for the expressway remained unchanged from the abandoned Korean contract, with minor modifications. The highway was to originate from Peliyagoda (close to the new Kelani bridge) and cut across Kerawalapitiya and Jaela to reach Katunayake; a distance of 25.6 kilometres with interchanges at the New Kelani Bridge, Peliyagoda, Kerawalapitiya, Ja-Ela and Katunayake, running mostly through Muthurajawela marshes and over the edge of Negombo lagoon. Contd. on Page 14 (The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka. He can be contacted on [email protected].) Colombo-Katunayake... Design The contract included design as well. But the road had been designed earlier, when the contract was awarded to the Korean contractor. So what was required was only a design review and modifications. When a contractor is awarded a contract on ‘measure and pay’ basis, based on a ‘bill of quantities’ and given the option to redesign, the contractor could modify the design to his financial advantage at the expense of the client. Under international contract conditions, a contractor is allowed to modify designs for mutual advantage (value engineering) and the resulting cost reduction could be shared between the contractor and the client. No such arrangement had been made in the contract and the contractor would have benefited from the clause. Standards The currently constructed road conforms to international standards; the four-lane dual-carriageway designed for 80-100 kmph speeds has the same specifications as the highway attempted in 1991, with the exception that the current roadway allows only 80 kmph for the first seven km and the balance at 100 kmph, whereas the earlier road was designed for 100 kmph throughout. Details The expressway with a total length of 25.8 km, with 42 bridges, and 102 culverts built mostly over the marshes was filled with sand dredged from the sea. Details and beautifications are not included here as sufficient publicity has already been given through the media. Costs The most important factor in the construction of any project is the cost. The expressway proposed in 1991 was estimated to cost only Rs. 5,544 million or US$ 110 million. The cost of the currently completed expressway amounts to over Rs. 45,000 or US$ 342 million. In addition the failed Korean contractor’s work cost the country Rs. 5,444 million. Thus the total costs amount to over Rs. 50,444 million or Rs. 50 billion, almost a 10-fold increase, which needs to be borne by the citizens. The cost of the Katunayake Expressway for a 25.8 km road amounts to almost Rs. 2 billion per km, and would thereby qualify to be the most expensive stretch of similar road in the whole world. How did this happen? Reasons for cost escalation The estimate in 1991 of Rs. 5,544 million was based on a land route, i.e. mostly over high ground, over developed land and houses. However, the estimate included the compensation costs as well. The route was rejected by Chandrika Kumaratunga in her campaign for presidency to be moved over the Muthurajawela marshes, and the RDA had to accede to her wishes. In highway construction, the road profile is selected to allow materials from the cut to balance the fill requirement, to minimise imported fill. The route selected under Kumaratunga’s directive was mostly over the Muthurajawela marshes and the Negombo lake. The route also passed over 1.9 km of Negombo canal, which had to be re-routed. The massive quantities of fill came from dredged sea-sand, the most expensive of fill material. The marshy, peaty and soft grounds involve risks of embankment instability and excessive settlement. Soft ground treatments adopted to overcome the problems include pre-loading and surcharging, prefabricated vertical drains, sand compaction piles and stone columns, among others. But Muthurajawela has peat as well which, with its spongy formation, could suddenly collapse when loaded. Only time will tell whether the contractor’s construction method was successful enough to overcome the foregoing conditions. Sand dredged from the sea was accepted for filling the base. Obtaining sea-sand is expensive, and measuring the quantity of sand used is difficult as the ground caves in, consuming endless quantities. In a measure and pay contract, accessing quantities used could be tricky and could lead to unethical calculations. In the 1991 estimate the cost of earthworks was Rs. 1,835.9 million or only 28% of the total cost, whereas the sand-filled foundations would have exceeded over 60% of the contract cost. Environmental proposal The environmental proposal prepared for the highway over the marshes claimed that out of three alternate routes considered, the route over the Muthurajawela was the least expensive and most environmentally friendly. The routes concerned were: 1. The original 1991 proposal to the east of Colombo-Negombo road 2. The widening of the existing Colombo-Negombo road and 3. The route over the marshes. However, the proposal failed to give figures or to substantiate the claim. Discussion There is absolutely no argument that an expressway to Katunayake is required and if the 1991 proposal was carried out, the highway would have paid for itself by now. But a 10-fold increase in cost in rupee terms or over 350% in dollar terms is unacceptable. The change from the land route to a difficult to construct and expensive route over the marshes was a political decision without any knowledge in engineering. After the presidential elections in 1994, the construction contract was awarded in 1999, during which time there were surely sufficient time and opportunity to inform the President of the realities and consequences of this action. The failure to enlighten the President on a matter upon which she was ignorant lies solely with the senior engineers of the RDA. The so-called environmentalists once more showed their true character that their interests are not with the country, but their masters who finance them. The people of Sri Lanka need to be careful of these persons who are supposed to safeguard our environment. The Katunayake Expressway is not the only project that was ill-conceived by the politicians at a great cost to the country. There have been scores of projects big and small which have been modified, relocated, delayed, abandoned or cancelled to accommodate the protesting public, mostly at the instigation of the so-called NGOs and political opponents who serve their own interests. Unfortunately our politicians with their know-it-all attitude are not prepared to listen to their senior staff in responsible positions. Meanwhile the individuals in high positions, whose job necessitates providing proper advice, keep mum for personal gain. To avoid repetition of such mistakes, future project details need to be available to public, to allow public and intelligentsia to express their views, so that every project is cost effective, and reach correct determination for the ultimate good of the country. The professional institutions, as representatives of professionals in respective fields, need to initiate discussions on proposed public projects, should spearhead public opinion and advise the government to avoid costly blunders; so far they have failed in their duties as responsible professional bodies. Sri Lanka needs a large number of massive development projects for the benefit of populace and the generations to come. Everyone would agree that, with Sri Lanka’s finances being what they are today, the country can no longer afford further mistakes. Society as a whole needs to work together to find ways and means of preventing the repetition of such blunders. (The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka. He can be contacted on [email protected].)

Recent columns