The critical transport element of the much hyped US $ 40 billion Megapolis development project is likely to end up as a major burden on the economy, which is already saddled with massive debt piles, a leading transport expert in the country said. According to the Professor Amal Kumarage, the mega project is suffering from ad-hoc planning, insufficient studies and massive cost overruns, which are not justified based on proper technical, procedural, economical and social parametres.
“I don’t think it is sustainable and it is going to be a major burden on the economy like we have seen in some of the other major infrastructure projects, which are also sadly transportation related that are burdening our economy now because they had been poorly planned, over estimated and we have paid too much for them and now we are suffering with debt repayments on non-performing transportation assets,” Kumarage said. The Megapolis development project, which was launched in January 2016 with much fanfare by the government, is slated to come into operation in three phases spanning within a period of 15 years and, is implemented on a public private partnership (PPP) basis.
Transportation is 30 percent or a US $ 12 billion worth element of the project. But until now, Kumarage pointed out that this critical element was merely discussed over power point presentations with no detailed reports, analysis and, public discussion. Speaking at a seminar titled, ‘Economics of shooting without aiming:
The case of transport in the Megapolis’ organized by Verité Research, a Colombo-based policy think-tank, Kumarage queried if these mega infrastructure developments are sheer supplier -driven projects as the planners have allocated more funds on unsustainable high-cost long-term solutions that focus too much on building highways but less on infrastructure for public transport. “One of the biggest problems in promoting buses and railways is that there are no lobbies, no huge construction companies, no financing companies, no international commission people who are doing anything. These are too small and too fragmented for them to get involved,” he explained. Generally, only when the size of the financing is too big, the moneys could be siphoned off.
However, the public will have to carry the burden later in repaying the debt taken to build these mega infrastructure systems. This is a common practice in most of the developing countries. Kumarage, who is also the Senior Professor at the Department of Transport & Logistics Management at University of Moratuwa (UoM) showed his university team’s study suggesting to spend 34 times more on railway and over 21 times more on buses than the Megapolis team suggests. In spite of this, the Megapolis team has allocated as much as 63 percent of the investment into building roads which will only increase the congestion as people will increasingly use private vehicles on these extended roads. The Megapolis team has also overlooked over US $ 2.8 million investment in rail road development in their public transport projections which were also presented to the President and the Prime Minister, raising serious questions about the credibility of the other financial estimates.
The UoM study allocates Rs.497 billion for railway transport while another Rs.343 billion for bus transport with a total cost running up to Rs.1.6 trillion for improving passenger transport in the Colombo Metropolitan Region (CMR) over a 20-year period till 2035, which includes a rapid transport system based on Bus Rapid Transit. Kumarage believes that 50 percent of such investments could be met through the private sector and says Colombo can be transformed to an economically competitive city by halving the transport cost from the current 12 percent of gross domestic product in the Western Province.
Since the announcement of the project, the Megapolis team has neither explained nor made the project available to be reviewed by the international experts, Kumarage charged. Speaking of the expertise used in the project, he noted that the project scope goes beyond the professional capacities of some of the experts involved in the project, raising questions about the correct expertise employed.
However, the Megapolis team representatives who were also present at the seminar said they were yet to finalize the transport plan and therefore criticism should not be levelled against an unpublished plan. Despite the claims by the Megapolis team, Prof. Kumarage said Cabinet papers had been presented seeking approvals for various sections of the project by various quarters.