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Public-private coupling overrides bumps as DEE half opens

MUNIMA SULTANA | September 02, 2023 00:00:00

Thirteen of the 15 ramps on the Dhaka Elevated Expressway will be opened to traffic on Sunday, as its airport-Farmgate section is set to be inaugurated on Saturday. — FE Photo

A public-private coupling in development pursuit finally stands the test as a maiden big infrastructure project with foreign investment under PPP model is about to see success. The half-built Dhaka elevated expressway (DEE) opens today, with seamless transport drive overhead to leapfrog traffic tailbacks in the megacity.

The public-private partnership (PPP), built 12 years ago, drives past ups and downs on a bumpy road to reach this stage of opening of the first half of the expressway. On the occasion of inauguration, the FE talked to both public and private partners and tried to find roles they played in keeping up the hope by stopping the relationship from impairing.

Italian-Thai Development Public Company Limited (ITD) is one party to the Dhaka elevated-expressway PPP project. The ITD Managing Director as well as Bangladesh Bridges Authority (BBA) present and past officials narrated the success stories written in various stages overcoming umpteen uncertainties.

Though M Monjur Hossain was not involved with the DEE project from the beginning, he, however, plays the role as the Bridges Secretary and Executive Director of the BBA to shape up the first PPP model and lift it to the next stage of profit-taking and operation. This is an important milestone to make the PPP project credible for future PPP investors.

Mr Monjur says as the DEE opens now, the BBA has taken over a new role as supervisor of the entire operation and maintenance of the open part. This operation and maintenance work will be carried out by the private partner but BBA's role is to oversee the work go well.

"Success of the PPP model now depends on smooth functioning of the expressway and it is dependent on disciplines, management and enforcement," he says, adding that elevated expressway is new concept for the country which so far has had highways and expressway.

Also, the DEE success depends on the discipline of transport movement and efficient management and enforcement of traffic rules as maintaining high speed on the expressway ensures more traffic.

The private company has to ensure these three -- discipline, management and enforcement -- for the sake of due revenue earning till end of the contract tenure.

"The DEE is built with the capacity of 80-kilometre-per-hour speed-limit. But 60-kilometre- speed limit is now allowed for the safety cause as we do not have such discipline in driving."

The Secretary-cum-ED, Monjur Hossain, also says a technical team of BBA will carry out the supervision until the entire corridor is ready. After the end of the DEE project in June 2024, BBA will form a committee to supervise and guide the private partner.

Appreciating the role played by BBA officials concerned of the project as well as Monjur's past colleagues, he says taking the timely role on support project and coordination with different quarters and government agencies the DEE has come to the present stage despite delays.

Asked what learning the public partner earned from the first project, Mr Monjur said, "Not only this project, the BBA learns from every project. From such learning successful integration of the DEE with HSIA with two ramps and a provision for riders of the Dhaka Ashulia Elevated Expressway has been kept through building a separate two-lane road in addition to DEE's four-lane carriageway."

This project helps focus more on optimum land use with maximum benefit for upcoming expressway projects, he added, thanks to the project's panel of experts, consultants, independent engineers, safety consultants to guide at all stages.

"Whoever joined the DEE project earlier did value addition to the project."

To a question on compromising the project with various projects along the way, the Secretary did not accept such notion and said it was rather better coordination with those projects.

As timely realizing VGF (Vulnerable Gap Funding) is important for a PPP project, he said, it was done in time considering overall situation of the project. According to the concessionaire agreement, the government has to pay the VGF in six installments -- first three during the three and a half years of construction period and the rest three during operational period. But the project's commencement took long time to execute till January 01, 2020. The BBA released the first installment after shaping up the project, he claimed.

Project Director AHMS Aktar, who has been engaged with the DEE project since the outset, said the project was never at the confidence stage of many people, including media, from the beginning. "Now people see it and understand it is possible for keeping up hope in all circumstances," he said, admitting that he had to face continuous challenges during entire period from the project signing to the present stage.

He mentioned that the DEE faced first obstruction from the private landowners and later from 14 government agencies. More challenges came later on when BBA tried to make the alignment free by shifting utilities and demolishing unauthorized buildings.

"Most challenging part of the project was to carry out construction over the railway lines without disrupting any train movement," he said, adding that girders weighing about 70 to 80 tonnes have been uplifted over the train lines without hampering any train movement, which should be considered a success story for the project.

He claimed that no such incidents occurred during the construction period due to doing entire work at night ensuring safety. Frequency of train movement was reduced from 12 midnight to 4am and officers were kept between two stations to alert on arrival of any train.

Next challenges were to build ramps at different points along the busy roads, said the PD, adding that though late, the project has got support from high-ups whenever critical situation arises.

Regarding certification of the expressway standards by any third party or authority, the PD, however, said the BBA experts, safety auditor, and independent consultants ensure it.

Quazi Mohammad Ferdous, now BBA's Chief Engineer, took over charge of the DEE project first as superintending engineer and later as the PD. He faced the first blow on the alignment as two important ramps at Mohakhali and Farmgate were cut and revised concessionaire agreement was to sign for surviving the project.

Amid such uncertainty, Ferdous was appointed first PD of the project in January 2014 and started coordination with different authorities for taking the project forward. When the project's uncertainty was centered on inability to manage funds by the private partners, he also utilized the time by taking support project for land acquisition and utility shifting.

Mr Ferdous said with the successful first land acquisition from Cantonment, which was possible with the help of the then Bridges Secretary, Khandaker Anwarul Islam, the project experienced the first fillip and got confidence to start the first-tranche work from Airport to Banani. Continuous coordination could also ensure resolving all problems the project faced later on.

''It may seem to others that this first PPP project has been slowed down or must be closed for not finding confidence. But the BBA continued its efforts in all circumstance to find a solution, which results in the first half of the DEE being now visible,'' he says about what it took to ride past the rocky road to success.

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