The CKE gets you there in 50 minutes
But will it be sustainable with a partial toll?


By Joseph Thavaraja


Last week, Sri Lanka secured US $500 million from Asian Development Bank (ADB) for the much needed Colombo-Kandy Expressway (CKE) linking of course, Colombo and the central hill city of Kandy.

Roads, the backbone of our transport sector, account for 92% of freight and passenger traffic in Sri Lanka. We have a total road network of around 100,000 km. Of this, 11,000 km are considered national highways, classified as ‘Class A’ and ‘B’ categories. There are 25 motor vehicles per 100 persons (est.), with 21,067 million passenger-km reported. The road density in Sri Lanka stood at 1.6 km of roads per every sq km (2009), which is higher compared to that of other countries in the region, according to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

The current Colombo-Kandy trunk road called A1, is Sri Lanka’s first modern road (1932) which the British took 11 years to complete. The current distance between the two cities is 115 km (72 miles) and the ‘A1’ stretch often is known for severe traffic congestion, especially as regards traffic towards the capital. Despite being a trunk road, it is narrow in many places, thereby preventing the smooth flow of traffic. In the urban areas, the traffic on A1 slows down to less than 10 km per hour. Thus, the need for an expressway has been felt for a long time, Now, funds have been secured, plans drawn and baseline schedules ready for a Colombo-Kandy Expressway (CKE).

What’s an expressway?

An expressway is a cordoned off, spacious, multi-lane road restricted to vehicles (only) that are able to reach speeds of over 100 kmph. It won’t have bicycles, three wheelers/tuk-tuks, bullock carts, pedestrians, roadside ‘plain tea kiosks’ and stray puppies suddenly darting across your path. The purpose of an expressway is to minimise the time needed to reach a destination, simply to get you from point A to point B in the least possible time. As a result, access to the expressway is not ‘open’; both entry and exit points are ‘controlled’ and one cannot just enter or connect to the expressway from any spot. A special set of road signs is also used in expressways. Instead of ‘junctions’, an expressway has ‘interchanges’.

Interchanges are not mere junctions seen on our roads. Traffic from various directions does not flow into the main junction at once clogging the expressway at an interchange. Instead, the roads falling on to the centre-point from other directions cut across each other above or below one another via flyovers.

What is important to understand is that it is only at these interchanges that a driver can get off the expressway. Most importantly, expressways also have one additional feature––the toll gate, where drivers have to pay a usage fee!

The CKE linking Colombo and Kandy will consist of four lanes initially; it will be expanded to six lanes later on. The expressway will facilitate vehicle speeds up to 110 km an hour. Its length is expected to be only 98 km and will reduce travel time from three hours to 50 minutes. The expressway however, does not exactly terminate in the midst of both cities but will start a few kilometres away from them––its Colombo end starts at Kadawatha and Kandy end at Katugasthota. A challenge for the project manager is that the CKE is not limited to an ‘urban only’ setting. It cuts across both urban and rural areas. More importantly, it will reach 1,500 feet above the mean sea level towards Kandy. It will navigate most part of the western slope of Sri Lanka.

Since there are issues such as land acquisition for construction, the expressway will be built as an elevated expressway on a concrete wire bridge ‘duct’ and some parts of which could possibly be built on the existing A-1 stretch. The construction project is scheduled to span four years at two phases. According to the initial project plan, Phase I is 48.2 km in length (4 lane elevated) from Kadawatha to Ambepussa and will be expanded to six lanes later. Phase II will be constructed from Ambepussa to Katugastota and 50+ km in length (4 lanes elevated).

The CKE will consist of 10 interchanges - Kadawata, Gampaha, Balabowa, Mirigama, Ambepussa, Dewalegama, Rambukkana, Hatharaliyadda, Hedeniya and Katugastota. The traffic flow from Kurunegala will flow on to the expressway at the Ambepussa interchange.

The new expressway, once completed, may not be entirely free. It will be a toll way, at least partially. According to Media Minister Kehaliya Rambukkwelle, a toll will be levied for the use of at least its first part, even if the expressway is to be solely operated by the government and not as a Public Private Partnership (PPP). Usually, the toll rate of an expressway is decided on such factors as the project financing costs, repayment time of project loans, projected expressway traffic, the level of technology used in the toll mechanism, the cost of toll operations, future road maintenance costs etc. Different toll bases are used in different countries. For instance, in India, the toll rates are fixed by the government and it is inflation linked. The Indian expressway operator has no control over the toll rates. The practice of toll in other countries also shows that different vehicles have to pay different fees per km i.e. a passenger van is charged less than a container truck.

What could be the base toll rate? The planned toll rates for CKE are not known (or even not calculated yet), but if planned toll packages for the Southern expressway are any indication, then we can assume it to be between Rs. 3.00 to 5.00 per km. (The toll package planned for the Southern Expressway takes a minimum charge of Rs. 3.00 per kilometre.) According to Ministry of Highways, the new toll system would be introduced to cover the highway construction expenses.

There is no doubt that the toll will help maintain the expressway. The toll will not only facilitate the self financing of the expressway in the long run but also help reduce the number of vehicles on the road thereby clearing way for high speed travel.

What is important to understand is whether a Rs. 5.00 per/km rate will justify the Return on Investment (ROI) of the CKE. Despite Sri Lanka’s claim that initial handler, the Consortium of Malaysian Firms (CML-MTD) was slow in construction and as a result the project had to be taken over, it is understood that the Malaysians simply pulled out since the revenue projections from toll earnings were not encouraging.

However, as it stands now, the government will be operating the CKE on its own and will only implement a partial toll and that is good news. But, on the other hand, low revenue from a partial toll may not be sufficient for maintaining the prescribed standards for the expressway to be viable in the long run. Unless the CKE is maintained in keeping with international standards, then it will end up yet another highway.

Therefore, full toll may have to be levied. But, will it be viable?

A practical solution may be found in the railway. There is a possibility of introducing a combined ‘rail and highway’ to Kandy with the help of CKE infrastructure. This is made possible by the elevated infrastructure, and it’s only a matter of widening the wire duct expanse to accommodate the railway, which will invariably be a passengers only dual track ‘light railway’. Such a light track will enormously enhance the utility of the CKE since the rail stations could also be installed wherever the interchanges are not available. More importantly, the revenue from this rail track could be used to a great extent to subsidise the expressway toll.

But, the question is how to find funds for the project. If the light rail revenue projections are good, then a PPP, too, may be possible.

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