October 27, 2013 is a significant day for all Sri Lankans, the highways sector and the engineering profession in general, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa inaugurates the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway. This is a project that many previous governments have attempted to complete but failed to make it a reality. As a person who has been involved in [...]

Sunday Times 2

The long road to Expressway

The man-behind-the-project and Road Development Authority's former General Manager, P.B.L. Cooray, traces the travails along the path that has now taken shape as the Colombo-Katunayake Highway

October 27, 2013 is a significant day for all Sri Lankans, the highways sector and the engineering profession in general, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa inaugurates the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway. This is a project that many previous governments have attempted to complete but failed to make it a reality. As a person who has been involved in the highways sector for more than 35 years, I would like to share with the readers some accounts that transpired over the life of this project.

A report submitted by the Wilbur Smith Associates in 1960 envisaged the need for a north-south highway from the Colombo Port to the Katunayake Airport. In 1965, a sand fill was done at Peliyagoda with sand dredged from the Kelani river and four bridges constructed, and for some reason unknown the project was abandoned. These bridges stood idle for 46 years until one was used for the new expressway. The overhead bridge at the northern end of new Kelani bridge was used until two years ago for hoardings and it was demolished to make way for a bridge to suit the expressway.

Around 1980, the Japanese Government undertook to fund the expressway and carried out a pre-feasibility study followed by a feasibility study in 1983 and thereafter the detail engineering design. This was for a route through Ekela, Ragama, and the free trade zone to the airport. But on completion of the studies when Road Development Authority (RDA) officials went to the site the residents protested and did not allow them to come to the area, and used thugery and intimidation to prevent them proceeding with the work. They even tried to overturn and set fire to RDA vehicles.

The residents formed a powerful association and even the police could not overcome their resistance. Even powerful personalities like R.Paskeralingam, Secretary Highways, were closely associated with the project but no one could help.

Finally Minister Wijayapala Mendis, MP for Katana, undertook to settle the matter but with a few attempts dropped it like a hot brick. That was the end of the project for which so much of time and money had been spent. Payments made to Japanese consultants, for three stages of study were in vain, because all their studies were based on a predetermined trace which had been selected without considering the human aspect involved in land acquisition.

In 1994 Highways Minister A.H.M. Fowzie gave the green light for finding an alternate trace for the expressway and I immediately got started with the investigations knowing well through past experience that for such a highway to be successful the most important need was to find the path that caused the minimum damage to private property while, ensuring the technical needs. Further with the knowledge of the past and the controversies surrounding it I decided to handle the project myself.

I travelled twice by train from Colombo to Ragama, and thereafter hired an Air Force helicopter with the doors removed to traverse the area. A photographer volunteered to hang on a rope from the helicopter to take photographs but this was probably not successful that I never saw him for the second time. This I did as the aerial photographs available with the Survey Department were not very helpful. Thereafter I travelled on every road or footpath in the area in search of the alternate route. The outcome was a road using the marshy land at Peliyagoda on the eastern side of Colombo-Negombo road and the Muturajawela marshes and the Negombo lagoon on the western side. There was only one point on the road from Colombo to Negombo which was high enough to allow a road to pass under it. This was at Mabole and this point was used to connect the marshy land on either side of the Colombo Negombo road.
The next task was to connect the section from Peliyagoda with this point at Mabole as this section was somewhat populated .The first effort was to take the trace close to St Anthony’s church Wattala, but being the most developed area in Wattala there were much protests from the people. As an alternative a trace close to the Kelani river was investigated and we found difficult to reach the area as the word had now spread that the expressway is being traced through the area.

At this point of time Rev Fr Earnest Porutota who was the parish priest of the area invited the RDA to explain to the people the RDA proposal. When we went there we were surprised to see a large gathering equipped with all the electronic media, but we went ahead with the discussions quite peacefully until there was a power failure after which the crowd got restless and a few nasty remarks were heard. My jeep driver who realised the situation turned the jeep towards the audience and switched on the head lamps after which the crowd subsided. We quickly ended the discussions and moved away from the area.

Thereafter, another trace was found to connect Peliyagoda with Mabole and I went with some of my engineers and we were standing on the platform of the Hunupitiya Railway Station, when we were surrounded by a mob of around fifty people. How all of them gathered at such short notice was surprising. We were threatened with all the nasty words and we quietly got in to our vehicles, but we were told that we should not come there again and the plans which were in our hands were grabbed. We complained to Felix Perera MP who sent a police team to recover the plans but found that they had been burnt. However, Mr. Perera warned that we should not come that way without getting security from him. At this point I realised that the new trace after all this effort was going to meet the same fate as the previous one. However I did not give up as the proposal through Hunupitiya was the last resort, failing which we would have to give up.

I allowed a few months to lapse and I divided this stretch from Peliyagoda to Mabole into five sections and entrusted the survey to the five private surveyors with modern equipment. They were given strict instructions to carry out all necessary surveys required from land acquisition to final design as coming that way for a second time would not be possible. They were also instructed to inform the people of the area that they were surveying for the purpose of laying a water line. These instructions were carried out and the surveyors got the fullest cooperation from the residents. This strategy made the long awaited Colombo-Katunayake road a possibility and there after the preliminary design and land acquisition procedures began.

Having realised that the new trace was going to be a success my next hurdle was to get the Government which was deeply involved in the Northern war to accept this new trace, and to get interested once again in the expressway project. At this time due to the inability of the Government to fund new projects on its own, the Board of Investment — which was involved in developing public-private partnerships in construction field referred to as BOO and BOT projects — contacting various ministries to find suitable projects for implementation. Now I got the opportunity to submit the expressway project as the contribution of the Highway Ministry. This was well received by the then BOI Chairman, Thilan Wijesinghe, who brought it to the notice of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and got her interested.

By this time although a solution was found to prevent public protests, there was resistance to the new trace from other quarters. The Japanese officials insisted that they would not fund the project unless the trace adopted by them was used. A leading architect kept on opposing the trace probably for personnel reasons and suggested that the road be taken over the railway line. Transport Specialist, the late Mr. Diyandas, suggested that instead of an expressway an express train service to airport be started.

To this I argued that even the house maid bound to Dubai would use an airport taxi rather than going to the Fort railway station. The Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka arranged a public lecture which was attended by NGO officials, senior public servants and engineers such as the late Dr. A.N.S.Kulasinghe and in all these instances I had to argue out the case for the new trace highlighting the advantages over the Japanese trace.

Minister Fowzie arranged a meeting with the MPs of the area to explain the new trace and they were in agreement. The environmental impact assessment study was entrusted to the Sri Jayawardenapura University. The fisheries department raised the point that fish would not be able to migrate from one side to the other where the road passed through the Negombo Lagoon. To mitigate these problems, two bridges were included in the design. With a few more amendments, the approval of the Central Environmental Authority was obtained.

The BOI chairman arranged to meet President Kumaratunga to explain the trace and she not only approved it but this later became her pet project. To compensate for the unorthodox method used to overcome public protests, I initiated a cabinet paper to pay 25 per cent more compensation over and above the valuation by the Valuation Department for all properties acquired for this project, and this was approved.

A Malysian investor got interested in a package including this project on a BOT basis, a science park in a 200 acre block of land at Ekala, and a financial institution. I think the Government signed an MOU to proceed with this but within a few months some of the Asian currencies including that of Malaysia were in trouble and this investor backed out from this project.
At this stage the Treasury agreed to fund the project and tenders were called and the project was awarded to Daewoo Keangnam. They carried out a good part of the sand fill with offshore dredging of sand and later the project was mutually terminated due to lack of local funds. After a lapse of several years, the project was resumed with Chinese funding and we could now witness successful completion of the long awaited expressway.

This road trace has several advantages which need to be mentioned. The new trace causes minimum destruction to house and property. The present highway runs at a low level except near the limited road crossings. The Japanese trace was for an elevated road mostly around 20 Ft above ground level as it was passing through highly developed areas with a wide network of roads. Once the highway was raised at a road crossing it could not be brought down to a lower level as there was another road ahead to cross. Such an elevated road would have been like the Great Wall of China dividing communities and social groups, destroying house and property of high commercial value. Cost of acquisition would have been prohibitive, and people would have obstructed even at construction stage. The present highway being close to the sea it was easier to fill with sand dredged from the sea, and was constructed without dust pollution and inconvenience to the public
The Japanese trace was for an expressway to the airport meeting it through Ekala, Ragama, and the free trade zone, whereas the new road joins the airport access road and the A3 highway at Katunayake thus making it straight away a part of the road network.
The Rajapaksa Government which is committed to improve the road network in the country has correctly identified this project and got it implemented expeditiously and successfully.

Finally the Colombo Katunayaka Expressway has turned out to be a thing of beauty, passing through open land at Muthurajawela and the Negombo lagoon, giving the foreign travellers a good first impression of the country.

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