Marine Drive under Galle Face Green needs professional discussion

Tuesday, 6 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Extendingthe Galle Face Green for citizens is a wonderful idea; Colombo is critically short of recreational space and the Galle Face on a weekend is chockfull – Pic by Lasantha Kumara


A few weeks ago, Minister for Megapolis and Western Development Patali Champika Ranawaka delivered good news for the citizens of Colombo and visitors to the capital. The Galle Face Green would be widened by 30 metres. 

The project is designed to extend Marine Drive from Kollupitiya to connect Port City, with a tunnel running under the Galle Face Green to connect the elevated highway arriving from Kelani Bridge. Further, the Minister conveyed that the connection would not disturb the view from Old Parliament building, the use of Galle Face Green by public and the ocean view from Galle Face Hotel, a listed heritage building.

Signing of MOUs

In December 2017, two tripartite Memorandum of Understandings (MOU) were signed between the Ministry of Megapolis, Urban Development Authority and CHEC Port City, in Beijing, over the funding of Colombo International Finance City building complex on the reclaimed land of Port City and the Marine Drive Tunnel connecting Airport Highway on Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) basis. The Cabinet has approved the signing of the MOUs.

While the Financial City in Port City was publicised, Marine Drive Tunnel is a new proposal. As per the MoU signed, Marine Drive from Kollupitiya Railway Station will run under Galle Face Green as a tunnel joining ChaithyaRoad with a connection to Port City. 

Attempts by RDA

Since 1995 the Road Development Authority (RDA) has been attempting to extend the Marine Drive,but progress was slow due to funds shortage. RDA’s proposal for the extended Marine Drive ends passing the Galle Face Hotel, connecting Galle Road at Galle Face roundabout. They faced the need to acquire sea-side sections of the American Embassy, Colombo Swimming Club, Grand Hyatt and St. Thomas’ Preparatory School. 

To date RDA has made compensation payments up to Hyatt Hotel. A few months ago, armed with a Court order, the RDA demolished part of the walls of Colombo Swimming Club. RDA has accepted the responsibility of the Environmental Impact Assessment for the proposed construction.

Project proposal

The tunnel under the Galle Face Green is a proposal by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), the developers of Colombo Port City. But the Ministry of Megapolis has agreed to consider the proposal as a result of a request made by the Ministry to undertake required studies and financing of the construction of the underground Marine Drive. The project will be considered a solicited proposal. 

According to CHEC, MOU will justify the costs incurred to its principals and to ensure that the Government will evaluate and negotiate the PPP project on an exclusive basis. According to press releases $150 million project is likely to be incurred on Public Private Partnership (PPP) basis. But the Government would be forced to make annuity payments as toll collection would be insufficient, which means the section would be a toll road; very unlikely, how much toll can be changed for a two km road? In addition, two ends would require toll collecting points with many gates. Additional cost and space would not be worth it.

Enormous cost

The project is expected to cost $150 million or Rs.22,500 million, a huge sum of money. The sum is over 11% of 269Ha Port City cost. The project in extending the Marine Drive will dump the excavated material into the sea, extending Galle Face Green width by 30m.

Cost wise, the highest cost of road construction in the country was noted in Section 3 of Outer Circular Road awarded at around $24 million per km; most difficult road for construction located in marshes and mostly elevated. The proposed 5.6km long Port Access Elevated Expressway is estimated to cost $251 million or $44.8 per km. The 2km Marine Drive would cost $75million per km, highest of all.

The construction of 269Ha Port City by the same contractor cost $1,337 million or $4.97 million per Ha. If the land reclaimed be costed at the same rate (30m wide, 750m long) or 2.25Ha would cost $11.2 million. Thus the cost of 2km road and 2.25Ha extension would cost only $60 million. 

The estimated cost of $150 million seems extremely high, possibly due to the tunnel adjacent to the sea, and needs investigation. But the tunnel would only be a cut-and-cover construction, not a typical underground tunnel involving drilling and blasting.

Right to Information and EIA

The Megapolis Ministry announced the project only after signing the MOU. The Right to Information Act provides information on acts committed but not on proposed programs. 

The proposed project would be subjected to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). EIA approval is requested when all construction planning and details are finalised, does not allow discussion of the financial viability of the project or modifications for improvement. Only the environmental aspects are discussed.

Possible Marine Drive extension, physical

As project details have not been published, they can only be imagined. The proposed road consists of two sections. First section from Kollupitiya station to Galle Face Hotel and second section running under Galle Face Green. 

The first section is complicated by the railway line crossing the proposed road. From the railway turn off to Galle Face Green, distance is little over 300m and includesthe High Commission of India, American Centre and Galle Face Hotel, all with rear bordering the sea.

The Galle Face today is a 7Ha (17 acres) ocean-side urban park, stretching 750m (2,460ft) along the coast and is 110 to 80m width. Sea boundary of the Green is a road supported by a retaining wall around 4m high near Galle Face Hotel reducing to 3m near Parliament. Another wall nearly 1.5m high in steps separates the roadway from the green.Proposed Marine Drive extension tunnel possibly runs under the railway crossing and continue at the edge of the Galle Face Green. The high project estimate assumes a tunnel under the railway.

Tunnel height and depth

Regarding vertical clearance in road tunnels, the World Road Association specifies: “The minimum height plus the comfort margin yields the maintained headroom. If a value of 0.30m is taken for the comfort margin, the maintained headroom is 4.5m.” In addition, lighting and ventilation would require around one metre. Thus likely height of proposed tunnel would be 5.5m. The tunnel would be cut and cover construction, cheaper and convenient, making construction possible at different points.

The railway track at Kollupitiya is around 1.5m above sea level. If the tunnel top is placed 1m below the railway track, the road surface inside the tunnel would be 5.3m below sea level (assuming the tunnel top be 300mm thick).

Galle Face edge wall and support wall are 5.5m high. If 300mm of earth is placed on tunnel top for grass to maintain present level, the road level in the tunnel would be only 0.3m below sea level. 

Assuming the tunnel to have a road base of 500mm and a concrete floor of 500mm thick,the tunnel bottom under the rail crossing would be 6.3m and in the Green 1.3m below sea level, but would become deeper towards Port City with the reducing wall height by the sea. The construction below the sea, undulating rock boulders and intruding sea-water, results construction problems leading to higher costs, but $150 million is questionable.

The material recovered from tunnel excavation finds a convenient dumping place in extending Galle Face Green with a rock filled edge preventing erosion. 

Extending the Galle-face Green

Apart from the cost, extending the Galle Face Green for citizens is a wonderful idea. Colombo is critically short of recreational space and the Galle Face on a weekend is chockfull. When rains do not arrive, the grass becomes patchy due to the high volume of visitors, but does not affect its popularity. Most pressing issues to visitors to Galle Face are insufficient parking, forcing vehicles to go elsewhere, and the absence of wash-room facilities. 

As a citizen, I wish to look into the history of Galle Face and offer a possible solution to reduce costs, which could become the basis for a public discussion. My basic proposal includes a fly-over crossing the rail-track instead of a tunnel and raising the tunnel under the GFG; achieved by raising the top of tunnel to only 1m lower from the Galle Face Centre Road (GFCR). Also, in addition to the tunnel carrying Marine Drive, GFG be excavated to provide underground parking covered by a concrete roof with grass top, wash-rooms, restaurants and rain water storage to be used for watering the grass. 

History of Galle Face Green

When the Portuguese forces took over Colombo Harbour in the 1500s, they warned their forces not to roam around in the night (the area currently occupied by Galle Face Green), for fear of wandering elephants. When the Dutch captured the harbour from the Portuguese, they cleared the southern grounds to enable their cannons a strategic line of fire against a possible counter attack.

Formerly Galle Face Green extended over a much larger area. Records indicate it was bounded by the Beira Lake in the east, the ramparts of Colombo Fort, the city’s cemetery and the Indian Ocean. 

During the early years, British used the Dutch cemetery in Pettah to bury their dead. Later they used the southern bank of Beira Lake to rest the dead, which is currently the frontal yard of the Secretariat building. The location was used until 1860, when a plot of land in Borella (Kanatte) was declared the common burial grounds for all communities.

In 1856, the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Henry George Ward (1797-1860) commissioned the construction of the one-mile-long promenade. The esplanade in front of the fort, previously a marsh, was filled with earth and levelled for the purpose, completed in 1859, became the Galle Face Green. At the southern edge of the Green by the sea was a Dutch Villa, the site became the Galle Face Hotel, built in 1864.

Galle Face Green was used for horse racing since 1821 and the pavilion building at the highest point for watching races gave rise to ‘Race Bungalow’. Later a two-storey grandstand was added, currently the Crystal Ballroom of Taj Samudra Hotel. Horse racing ended in 1893 when racing moved to Colombo Race-Course. The Green was used as a golf course, also used for cricket, polo, football, tennis and rugby over the years.

After Independence

Early Galle Face grounds had the eastern boundary by a road bordering Beira Lake, now renamed as Baladaksa Mawatha. Later the grounds got divided by the Galle Face Centre Road, with lands to east given over to hotels and to accommodate forces; leaving only sea-side for the public. 

In 1966 when the statue of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike arrived from Russia, northern section of the Green was allocated to the statue by diverting the road. With Independence Day celebrations held in GF, army continue to build and widen the road, at the cost of public space.

Port City

Newly-developed Port City does not intrude into the Galle Face Green, in fact at the northernmost end before the water outlet from Beira, sea shore has been collecting sand. But when viewed from northern half of Galle Face, sea-view is already obstructed by filled sand, when tall buildings rise out of Port City, obstructions would increase. Thus widening of Galle Face would give some consolation.

Parking space for visitors

For visitors to Galle Face Green, the biggest problem is the shortage of parking space. I propose construction of underground parking facilities for vehicles under the GFG with a concrete roof covered with grass, leaving existing roadside parking for busses. 

Marine Drive Tunnel extended under the GFG would be adjacent to the current wall by sea edge. The land up to the proposed tunnel could be excavated, provided with a concrete roof with earth and grass layer, giving the green back to the visitors. Superficially, there would be no change except for a milder slope towards the sea. If a 60m wide section of the green be excavated to a 3m depth (3.6m allowing for concrete top and floor) for parking, resulting excavated earth filling the sea beyond the tunnel/road will extend the green by further 40m.

The excavated area could provide parking, restaurants, wash-rooms for public and also accommodate water tanks collecting water from grass covered rooftops. Collected water when used to watering the grass, will present a more eye-soothing green. 


The cost of Marine Drive extension proposed by CHEC and accepted by the Minister and the Cabinet seem extremely high, but cannot be commented without details. The proposal likely be an underground tunnel commencing before the rail-track crossing, continuing under the GFG, changing the depth as needed. 

I propose a fly-over clearing the rail-track and a tunnel under the GFG. The distance between the railway crossing and the beginning of GFG is slightly over 300m, should allow sufficient distance for transition from fly-over into the tunnel. The speed of vehicles in Marine Drive rarely exceeds 40kmph and the fly-over and the tunnel would allow the current speed. The fly-over will make the tunnel under the rail-track redundant and will reduce the cost tremendously, replacing the construction of a tunnel 6.3m below sea level. 

Galle Face Centre road is nearly 4.5m higher and 100m away from the sea-edge embankment, but the height and width reduces 3m and 80m nearing Shangri-La Hotel. If the turf slope is reduced to 1:100, tunnel top and bottom could be raised by 3m, dramatically easing construction thereby reducing costs. With higher edge the green could be extended by another 50m without changing the appearance. Reducing the green slope will prevent current erosion of soil creating patches. 

The excavation of the Green and construction of parking, restaurants, wash-rooms and water tanks would be expensive. But parked vehicles and restaurants will pay a rental, wash-rooms a nominal charge for maintenance. Thus the investment on parking will pay for itself. 

With proposed modifications with a fly-over above railway and tunnel under GFG above sea level construction costs of Marine Drive extension could be dramatically reduced. With excavated earth from parking even allowing deletion of tunnel in fly-over area, wouldincrease width of Galle Face Green by minimum 50m.

Need for professional discussion

The project cost of $150million as proposed by the Chinese developer of Port City seems extremely high, but was acceptable to the Minister and the Cabinet. My comments are based on imagination and judgement, would need improvements, especially when project details, exact physical measurements are available. 

Politicians claim to have imagined projects and expect public appreciation. They cannot understand that public evaluation could improve the viability of the project. Unfortunately in the past, development project proposals were not presented for public discussion prior to implementation. Only during Environmental Impact Assessments stage details are availed to public when all construction planning and details are finalised, without allowing a discussion of the viability of the project or modifications for improvement. Only the environmental aspects are discussed. Right to Information after completion is only a forensic study without allowing a better, cheaper project for the country.

At least hereafter, details of new projects over a basic value (say Rs.500million) at the feasibility stage be made available to public over the internet, for discussion in a professional forum. The submission should be made mandatory, so that necessary amendments can be affected to projects making them efficient, cheaper and cost effective. 

In the current scenario, the Ministry of Megapolis and RDA officials need to submit project details over the internet followed by a discussion to allow professionals in design, construction, urban and landscape planning to contribute to improve the proposed project and reduce cost, so that public could enjoy the extended Marine Drive with a widened Galle Face Green at an affordable price.

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