A leading logistics expert in the country recently charged that the government is seeking a whopping US $ 3.1billion (approx. Rs.453 billion) investment for an expensive Light Rail Transit (LRT) system from the private sector without having carried out any feasibility study. Moratuwa University Senior Professor in the Department of Transport & Logistics Management, Amal Kumarage said a Cabinet paper is now being drafted seeking investments from the private sector for this project.
But Kumarage expressed his doubts on attracting private investments of such magnitude and also cautioned the government that it would have to subsidize the service as LRT is less affordable. According to him, the decision to deploy a LRT system in the Colombo metropolitan region in place of a cheaper Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system has been sudden and no proper reasoning has been provided.
“Suddenly the rapid transit system has become LRT. And when we asked (why), an administrator had decided that is the mode that should be. When other cities would spend the whole year or two debating on the technology as to what is suitable, within two months and one meeting the technology has suddenly changed,” he charged. The massive investment is likely to be sought through foreign direct investment, but the country fares poorly in attracting such moneys due to uncertain policy environment, lower ranking in doing business index and lack of fiscal discipline hampering the prospects.
Speaking at a seminar titled, ‘Economics of shooting without aiming: The case of transport in the Megapolis’ organized by Verité Research – a policy think-tank, Kumarage said an earlier feasibility study for a cheaper and more flexible BRT system had been rejected by the Megapolis team based on a sheer 17 page report. “Feasibility (study) has been rejected for a BRT even though it is one of the least expensive ways of providing high quality mobility, they can be put in very quickly and they can also be taken out without much expense or inconvenience,” he explained. But the Megapolis team representatives who were present at the seminar said the transport plan under the Megapolis development project was yet to be completed.
Nevertheless Cabinet papers are being presented seeking approvals for various sections of the project by various quarters, perhaps even without the knowledge of the Megapolis team. Under the Megapolis project’s medium term transportation measures, a 60 kilometre elevated LRT system and a 200 kilometre urban expressway had been planned. But Kumarage said an LRT system would be costly to operate and would take considerable time and road space thereby increasing the traffic further. The Megapolis development project was launched in January 2016 with much fanfare by the government and is set to come into operation in three phases spanning over 15 years. The project is implemented on a Public Private Partnership (PPP) basis.
Transportation is 30 percent or US $ 12 billion worth section of the project but this critical element is said to have merely based on power point presentations with no detailed report with analysis, review and public discussion. The plan however is said to have allocated more funds on unsustainable high-cost longterm solutions that focus too much on building highways but less on infrastructure for public transport such as bus and railways.
Speaking on the country’s chances of attracting the said investment Professor Kumarage said, “My guess is that it will not happen and I should not be worried. But what I am worrying about is when we see that is going to happen, dream is sold and we further neglect to develop the bus and the rail. In 5 years, we will have neither”.