9th January 2000
By Tharuka Dissanaike
Sri Lanka's biggest post independence infra- structure project is set to take off by the end of next year. The construction of the 128 kilometre Matara-Colombo Expressway, costing about US$ 300 million is scheduled to end by 2005.
The Road Development Authority will oversee the construction and several international lending agencies have come forward with the money for the road. The Asian Development Bank, the Japanese OECF (Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund), Nordic Development Fund (NDF) and Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) will issue soft loans to meet the cost of the road construction while the government will pitch in its contribution towards land acquisition and relocation of people who will lose their homesteads to the road.
"It will be the biggest road development project since Independence," RDA chairman W.A. Jayasinghe said. "It will be the longest and most expensive stretch of roadway to be built in this country."
With necessary environmental clearances under their belt, the RDA is now at the detailed engineering design stage of the road.
The southern province of the country has not seen much development coming its way. Much of this lack of industrial and agricultural boom has been attributed to the south's lack of accessibility. The main road that plies the south, the Galle Road is a narrow two-lane carriageway which prohibits speedy movement. High vehicular congestion of the northern part of Galle Road or the A2, tapers down to bad surface conditions towards the far south- beyond Galle.
RDA estimates point out to a vehicular density of around 60,000 to 70,000 on the Galle road every day.
But despite the lack of development and infrastructure, over a quarter of the country's population lives in the south. Vast tracts of unutilised or underutilised land, fisheries, agriculture and the scope for industry are all there, but there is lack of proper access.
This is the very need, even if a little late in the day, which will be addressed by the Matara-Colombo Expressway.
"We have a network of 100,000 kilometres of roadway, inherited from the British," an RDA spokesman said. "So far, after Independence we have only been providing connectivity from town to town. But no large new road project ever got underway."
For real development, connectivity is not sufficient. Mobility or the time from one point to another is just as important. That is why expressways are necessary for serious development. Without speedy transport from the western province, where the port and airport are located it will be difficult for industrialists to look seriously at the south.
"Actually the RDA will be providing a series of expressways to various parts of the country. The Matara Expressway will be one of five such planned roads which will come up during the next half a decade," Jayasinghe said.
The new road will run roughly ten to 15 kilometres inland of the present coast-hugging Galle Road. It will begin at Kottawa, 16 kilometres east of Colombo city, and end at Matara town. The present distance of 160 kilometres on the Galle Road will be reduced to 128 kilometres. The long-term plan is for a six-lane road but for the moment only four lanes will be built. Four large bridges will be constructed over the Kalu Ganga, Bentota river, Polwathu Ganga and Gin Ganga. The road will not be elevated, but at certain flood-prone areas, certain mitigatory measures will ensure that the expressway does not go under at every deluge. To discourage encroachment the road reservation would be fenced in all along its total length except at the intersections.
"There will be intersections at every 15 kilometres or so," said the RDA spokesman. These intersections will connect main towns with the expressway and the Galle Road. The present inland road network linking interior southern towns like Matugama and Elpitiya with the Galle Road are expected to improve with the expressway.
Intersections will be at Kahatuduwa, Bandaragama, Dodanduwa, Lewwanduwa, Kurundugahahetekma, Milhena, Labuduwa, Angulugaha and Godagama.
Traffic on the road will be expected to travel at a minimum speed of 80 kilometres per hour. "The Highway Code has to be amended by the time these expressways are commissioned because our speed limits do not suit such fast travel," the spokesman said. "There has been no decision yet if the road will be toll-road," Mr. Jayasinghe said. "Even if a toll is introduced it will be a nominal one. The intention is to encourage people to use the road and the whole idea will be lost if the toll is prohibitive."
The expressway will be open to all kinds of traffic from inter-city buses (plying between intersections or from Colombo to Matara), containers, heavy vehicles, cars and vans but will be out of bounds for pedestrians and cyclists.
"The expressway will open up lands and towns around the intersections for rapid development," Mr. Jayasinghe said. "Presently the roads and general infrastructure of this area is in a poor condition."
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Matara expressway was done by the Moratuwa University and approved by the Central Environmental Authority. A total of 1000 hectares of land, mostly plantation and agricultural, has to be acquired for the road. The few displaced householders and shop owners will be resettled according to their wish. "There are about 14 categories of people who would be displaced due to the road. Businessmen, landowners, shops, rented houses and even squatters," said the spokesman. "All of them have been identified and will be adequately compensated. The government has committed Rs. one billion for compensation and relocation."
The RDA plans for five major expressways by year 2005. Four of these will fan out of Colombo -the Airport Expressway, the new Kandy Expressway, the Anuradhapura Expressway and of course, the Matara Expressway. The fifth will form an outer circular road linking all these expressways and the present A-grade roads out of Colombo. The Outer Circular road will be an all new trace linking Ragama on the A3, Kadawatha on A1 and Panadura on A2 and all the expressways.
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