Delays and escalating costs in road construction

Friday, 2 March 2012 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

When the British left Sri Lanka having granted independence, the country boasted the best road network in the Asian region.

Two major roads they left uncompleted were the High Level Road from Kirulapone to join the Low Level Road at Kaluaggala and improvement of the Galle Road to connect to the Kandy Road, with a bridge across Kelani River. The High Level Road was completed in the early 1950s.

The British as well as other developed countries understood the importance of improved infrastructure and were able develop their basics long ago, when costs were very much lower. In fact the London Underground Railway was first opened to traffic in 1863.

For the extension of the Galle Road, British planners earmarked and reserved the right of way for the entire road. The Britishers commenced work at the Moratuwa end (present Galle Road) and awarded the contract for the construction of the six-lane Kelani Bridge, which was completed in the early 1950s.

After independence, the allocation of funds for road development took a low priority and it took over a decade for Galle Road to improve from Moratuwa and reach Ratmalana Junction. Road completion from Kelani Bridge to Kirulapone (Baseline Road) was only possible with funding from JAIC aid package with a flyover over railway lines and was completed in 2002.

In the late 1980s when the country was gripped by the JVP insurgency, the Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia Municipal Council claimed that the extension of Galle Road over their Municipal area would never materialise and passed a resolution releasing the right of way reservation and allowed property owners to build.

The release of the reservation brought the RDA into a dilemma. From the early 1990s RDA proposed number of alternative routes. Each proposal was opposed by people en-route who objected to their houses being demolished to make way and challenged each proposal in courts as well as under environmental issues.

Finally the RDA came up with a route suggestion, a straight line from Kirulapone Junction to Belekkade Junction (at Ratmalana). This route circumvented Bellanvila Temple, Maliban Factory and Air Force Buildings, but others en-route had to make way irrespective of position and five years ago the RDA finally managed to get environmental clearance.

But nearly six weeks prior to the last presidential elections, representatives of persons from the affected properties met the President, relevant officials and the RDA staff and the President agreed to consider their request.

A couple of weeks before the elections, RDA in a press advertisement informed the public that the proposed road construction commencing from Pamankada-Kohuwala Road (from the 120 bus route) to Ratmalana had been discontinued and the moratorium against building had been lifted.

As an alternative to move traffic in south of Colombo, it is proposed to extend the Marine Drive from Wellawatte to Moratuwa and the bridge over Dehiwala canal is under construction. The Mt. Lavinia section of the Marine Drive needs to deal with a number of tourist hotels and S. Thomas’ College and a final proposal is awaited.

National Road Master Plan (2007-2017)

In 2007, the RDA published a document referred to as the National Road Master Plan (2007-2017), outlining its development programme for the road sector for the next 10-year period. It claims to strike a balance between maintenance and rehabilitation of existing assets and adding new capacity through widening, improving and new road constructions.

Accordingly roads in Sri Lanka come under:

nNational Roads Class A & B 11,671 KM

nProvincial Roads Class C & D 15,532 KM

nLocal Authority Roads Class E 64,659 KM

The document outlines proposals to develop roads under RDA or Class A & B roads during the 10 year period at a total cost of Rs. 669.9 billion distributed under:

nConstruction of expressways 238.3

nWidening of highways 215.1

nJunction Improvements and bridge rehabilitation 44.5

nRoad maintenance 127.3

nLand acquisition and resettlement 44.7

nTotal cost Rs. 669.9 billion

From above, the envisaged cost for land acquisition and resettlement are estimated at about 8.2% of total investment.

Road construction projects in Sri Lanka are notorious for cutting corners, thereby drastically reducing anticipated result. Even in the Southern Expressway, traffic lanes are narrower than the international standard width of 12 feet and emergency parking is so narrow it allows opening the door of the driver’s side only.

We have noticed widening of most roads mean improvement of the road carriageway without consideration of pedestrians, cyclists and undermining the safety of road users.

Colombo (Pamankada)-Kesbewa Road

Meanwhile, improvement of the Pamankada-Boralegomuwa-Kesbewa Road to join Horana Road (120 bus route) at Pokunuwita has been under consideration. In the early 1980s improvement of this road was proposed and land was acquired for a four-lane road. But in actual construction, road width standards dropped from section to section and finally beyond Kesbewa town, hardly any improvement was made.

Now with the opening of the Southern Expressway, which connects Kesbewa Road at Kahatuduwa, heavy traffic is expected and road improvement is about to commence. Under the proposed redevelopment of Pamankada-Kesbewa Road, a 12.88 km section is to be upgraded into a four lane highway with 1.5 m cycle lanes, 2-2.4 m shoulders and drains with improved bends and junctions.

The proposal will require a Right Of Way (ROW) of 24-33 m width for the development of the road. The existing average carriageway is 6.93 m width and existing average ROW of the road is 14.36 m. This new design proposes a bypass of Piliyandala town, running mostly over paddy fields. This required acquisition of neighbouring properties and demolition of buildings on them.

Legislative and policy framework – Resettlement Plan

The project is to be funded by Asian Development Bank and RDA has prepared a Resettlement Plan to compensate affected parties in the Pamankada-Kesbewa section of Colombo-Horana (B084) Road (including the bypass) in November 2011 under SRI: Additional Financing for National Highway Sector Project and the document is available on the RDA website (

RDA’s document gives in detail the current criteria for acquisition of property for public purposes under the Land Acquisition Act of 1950, which provides for the payment of compensation at market rates for lands, structures and crops, which has been amended on a number of occasions.

In addition, the National Environment Act, National Involuntary Resettlement Policy (2001) and ADB’s Safeguard Policy Statement (2009) are key policy instruments supporting resettlement planning and implementation.

The proposed construction of 12.88 km road envisages acquisition of 1,532 parcels of land of extent 7337.4 perches at a cost of Rs. 7,706,403,350. This averages to Rs. 598 million per km of road or Rs. 1.05 million per perch of land acquired, which includes cost of buildings on them.

It need also be mindful that part of the ROW requirement was acquired in the early 1980s and the current requirement is for additional widening, improvement of curves and junctions, which shows the enormity of current costs of property acquisition for road widening.

Proposed development of Colombo-Kesbewa (B 084) Road shows that:

1. The current cost of acquisition has increased by nearly hundred fold since the earlier acquisition in the early 1980s.

2. In compensation payment, some commercial locations close to Colombo were valued over Rs. 3 million per perch, reducing to Rs. 150,000 beyond Kesbewa.

3. Buildings were valued at current reconstruction cost and no reduction was made for ageing.

4. Improvements to junctions (with higher land values) are more expensive.

5. Even squatters on proposed development are paid a minimum of Rs. 300,000 as disturbance allowance.

RDA’s National Road Master Plan (2007-2017) ( envisages the cost for land acquisition and resettlement are estimated at about 7% of total investment. The Colombo-Kesbewa Road is an excellent example showing the implications of delays and legislation changes in land acquisition on escalation of costs.

Semi-urban roads

An important aspect overlooked in the preparation of the Road Master Plan was the escalation of roadside property values with time. During the past few years, especially with the ending of the war, most factories and stores occupying large extents of lands have relocated themselves outside Colombo, where lands are comparatively cheaper and available.

Relocations were also motivated by their labour originating from semi-urban regions. Most of these establishments are now located on Class B or on Provincial roads, straining them with increased traffic and heavier loads (containers).

This phenomenon is very evident in Colombo and Gampaha Districts, which record a high density of industries. If a traffic survey is carried out, a large number of these roads will become eligible to be developed into two lane category under RDA road classification (average annual daily traffic of 3,000).

With the Government offering land in Colombo for foreign investors at exuberant prices, property prices in Colombo and suburban areas are shooting up due to ripple effect. In Colombo most houses with road frontages are already converted into commercial establishments and owners have moved out.

With the phenomenal growth of vehicle numbers during the past few years, our roads are literally bursting at the seams. People will clamour for better, safer, wider roads and the Government will be forced to improve sub-urban roads during the next 10 or 20 years. If the increase in costs on the Colombo-Kesbewa Road is any precedence, cost escalation in acquisition would be the most important factor in road improvement.

Current development and user requirement

Currently provincial roads around Colombo and other cities are being improved by slight widening and asphalting of surface and the resulting increased speed of vehicles are already evident on improved roads. But roads are still narrow, with sharp curves, without shoulders, and hardly allow two vehicles to cross each other. Now where do pedestrians and the cyclists go? Higher speeds of vehicles will invariably increase accidents, which have already been witnessed.

Improvement of a road surface without increasing ROW results in two problems:

1. Once a road is improved, there will be no further improvement for 15 to 20 years until completion of economic life and land will have to be acquired then at inflated prices.

2. Surface improvement increases the value of roadside properties and acquisition cost would be still higher.

With improvement in lifestyles and vehicle ownership, citizens will demand roads that provide comfortable travel with the safety of pedestrians and cyclists along with pleasant surroundings. Therefore, future roads need to include traffic lanes, cycle paths and shoulders for pedestrians and drains with provision for services.

Under the land planning regulations, Local Authorities have specified road reservation width and construction within reserved sections are not permitted. Some of these reservations have been in place for decades.

Falling within reservations are rows of shops constructed and rented out by the landowners prior to imposition of regulations. As these structures are earmarked for demolition, local authorities do not levy rates. Most shopkeepers who occupy these old buildings do not pay a rent to the owner and the landlord is helpless in the matter.

The most ironic situation is that the shopkeepers sell the shops to third parties without the knowledge of the landowner or any payment. Landowners cannot evict the tenants or use the land, nor could they develop the rest of the property as the road frontage is denied to them.

These landowners would be most relieved by any acquisition of their property. In land acquisition under current compensation payment procedure, these shopkeepers who did not pay any rental to the landowners for years too are being paid compensation.

It is prudent to undertake acquisition for road widening as an urgent measure so that future acquisition and disturbances will be minimised. Planned widening will release sections of property not required for road widening back to owners. However, the revision of Thoroughfares Act as advocated in National Road Master Plan to control roadside development needs to be implemented.

Based on the above, some guidelines for future development planning emerge:

1.It is unfair to keep private lands reserved for development without taking over.

2.It would be cheaper to acquire ROW for expansion early and commence construction when acquisition is complete.

3.Acquisition of ROW and improvement of roads in the Colombo and Gampaha Districts where land price escalation are highest are to taken up on priority basis.

4..Similar roads around other cities too to be taken up.

Funding and execution

We need to accept that all our roads with the exception of expressways are all service roads and they have been servicing the needs of people who live on adjacent properties. But the roads need improvements, which are expensive, and the Government has already allocated a substantial percentage of the budget on road improvement.

Cost of development of roads can be divided into:

A. Compensation for acquired property

B. Construction costs.

As shown in Colombo-Kesbewa Road, acquisition of property on sub-urban roads are extremely expensive and costs are rising daily, whereas construction costs are generally stable and increases are mainly due to inflation and cost of bitumen in world market. To minimise costs and to have optimum results, the following steps are recommended:

1.The number of busses plying and industries on Class B and Provincial roads gives an indication of usage and priority.

2.Roads need to be designed and ROW determined according to usage.

3.ROW to be marked out on the ground and a time period allowed to property owners to make representations.

4.Once finalised, permanent markers to be fixed on the ground.

5.Acquire required property and pay compensation.

6.Demolish all structures on acquired property and level land.

7.Improve junctions and bottlenecks on a priority basis.

8.Balance road to be improved with availability of funds

9.All roadside properties to be digitally photographed and copies kept safely. This will control payment for subsequent constructions.

Procedure for acquisition of ROW can take a minimum of one year and possibly longer and is the biggest contributor for delays in construction and cost overruns in construction projects. Improvement of junctions and levelling of acquired property will substantially improve travel time. Prior acquisition would make construction cheaper and faster. Acquisition of ROW would be expensive, but delays would increase costs further.

As such it is recommended for Central Bank to raise long-term bonds on behalf of RDA for funding of acquisitions.

While the State pays for road development, roadside property owners benefit from better roads and escalated property values. Although they might lose some portion of the property for which they are compensated, they eventually become nett gainers, especially if the loss of land is small compared to property size. In acquisition when sums payable are substantial, part could be in interest bearing Government long-term bonds.

Property taxes levied by local authorities are very low and tax percentages should be raised considering increased property values so that at least a very small fraction of development costs is recovered.

Under current criteria for compensation payment, buildings are valued at current reconstruction cost and no reduction is made for ageing. Non reduction of valuation due to ageing has resulted in old building that are even unsafe for habitation and nearing collapse being paid massive sums. This valuation system is unfair and needs amending.

Immediate action

Planning and execution of any road project takes time, but preventing an increase in accidents and offering some immediate relief to road users could be achieved with the following steps:

1.Demarcate RDA property boundaries on all existing roads.

2.Remove all unauthorised structures within existing property.

3.Take measures to prevent further encroachment.

4.Remove unauthorised extensions made by property owners towards the road.

5.Disallow parking close to road junctions.

6.Move bus halts away from immediate vicinity of junctions.

While accepting road widening and reconstruction is no easy task with escalating acquisition costs as exposed in Colombo-Kesbewa Road, ROW acquirement is an urgent prerequisite especially in sub-urban regions where tendency for price escalation is high. Meanwhile, proper implementation of existing laws will bring some relief to road users.

(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 and currently employed with a Chinese construction organisation. He can be contacted on [email protected].)

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