One bus every 30 seconds. Forty minutes from Gazipur to the airport in comfortable, spacious buses. Sounds too good to be true? Sadly, yes. The buses are nowhere in sight and the purpose built rapid bus lanes are left partially completed with no firm finish date.
In a city of traffic snarls of gargantuan proportions, the enticing message of the fast travel is on two placards, put up by the Dhaka Bus Rapid Transit Project authorities in front of the Dhaka airport railway station. The message reads: "The bus in BRT lane will start every 30 seconds. BRT will take 35-40 minutes to transport passengers to Gazipur from Airport".
The promise, however, is a broken one.
Since the start of the construction of the project nine years ago, repeated delays have meant that the journey from Dhaka to Gazipur through Tongi Highway has become a nightmare for commuters. Construction of the 20.5km bus rapid transit has also destroyed the Dhaka-Gazipur Highway with numerous potholes and frequent kilometre-long traffic tailbacks. While commuters are suffering, businesses along the road are also reeling from mounting losses.
Finishing on time doubtful
As of now, despite the project being pushed back once again, forcing the government to give an ultimatum to the contractors, project high-ups have little faith that the work will be finished on the revised time.
The progress of the project implementation stood at 68% till December last year. Till July last year, the progress was just 61%, meaning the implementation has advanced only 7 percentage points in the past five months.
The main problem behind it has been the lowest-bidding contractors who are also incurring losses. The longer the project has lingered on, the more the costs have soared.
The initial estimated project cost was Tk2,039.84 crore, which has now more than doubled to Tk4,268 crore.
Contractors in fund crunch
"What has happened is that the contractor [Jiangsu Provincial Transportation Engineering Group Company Limited] won the tender by bidding the lowest. Now, as it is incurring loss, it is procrastinating," said Mohirul Islam Khan, the project director of the elevated part of the project. "As a result, the commuters are suffering."
The project official further said the selected contractors are not securing enough funds to complete the job on time, as their main company was not always helping with money.
"If you make one cubic metre, it will cost you Tk27,000. We give them Tk13,000 because that is what they bid," said Mohirul.
Another contractor, the China Gezhouba Group Company Limited, is constructing the at-grade section of the project. Till July 2021, physical progress was 61.70%, increasing to 71% by December last year.
On the delays, the project director said that the government had given them an ultimatum to finish construction works of the project by December.
"We will have to complete the project by 2022. We have already warned the contractor that it will have to complete the work by this time," said PD Mohirul.
Asked if he was sure the construction would be completed by the revised deadline, Mohirul expressed doubt.
"Whenever I urge the contractor to finish the work, they say that they do not have any funds. Then, I send the higher authorities a report that they could not work due to cash flow problems. This is how it is. What more can I do?" he said.
The project director also said they had asked that the deadline be extended till December 2023, which means the four-year project will have taken more than a decade.
The government took up the country's first bus rapid transit project (BRT-3) in 2012 to ease traffic congestion on the Dhaka-Gazipur Highway, with it slated to end in 2016.
The project is being jointly implemented by the Bangladesh Bridge Authority, Roads and Highways Department and the Local Government Engineering Department.
No money, no materials
Project Director Mohirul Islam Khan said that its contractor Jiangsu Provincial Transportation Engineering Group Company Limited was facing problems sourcing materials too.
Lots of different materials are required to construct the elevated part of the project, but payment delays have made suppliers reluctant.
Mohirul said that the contractors had bought materials on credit and had failed to clear their dues. He mentioned the example of one steel company that refused to provide any more materials if its earlier payments were not cleared.
The contractor has also tried to use substandard materials on a number of occasions, the project director claimed. When the materials failed the standard testing, fresh purchases had to be made which meant more time was wasted, he said.
Many subcontractors also opted out from working with the company because they too were not paid on time.
"When subcontractors understood that they may not get money soon, they stopped doing their part. This is happening too," Mohirul said.
The project implementation on the at-grade part of the project is also not satisfactory. The contractor, China Gezhouba Group Company Limited, had bid the lowest to get the work, but it is also facing a cash crunch.
ASM Elias Shah, project director of the at-grade part, said that they could have taken the initiative of cancelling the project but did not do so as it would mean more time for the retendering process.
"I believe the project will be completed by the end of December 2022," he said, adding, the contractor had also hoped to complete the work by then.
Project Director Mohirul Islam, however, was less optimistic.
He said that they are revising the Development Project Proposal and will seek another time extension till December 2023, which is one-and-a-half years more.
"This includes purchasing buses. The authority will purchase 103, and we will have to negotiate with the bus owners," Mohirul said.
"We understand that the project cannot be completed by then. For this, we asked for another revision of the deadline till December 2023," he said.
Meanwhile, project officials said that they, as well as the high officials of the government, have already contacted the Chinese authorities, including the Chinese embassy in Bangladesh, and informed them about the situation.
They, however, said that no punitive measures are being considered because if the contract was cancelled, the winning bidders might file a case in the international court. The project will then have to be stopped until a verdict is reached.
"Now, at least something is happening. Now, vehicles are plying the road, but if there is a case then vehicles may not be able to do so. If the court gives an injunction, nothing further can be done on the road," Mohirul said.
"There is a huge chance that we will win the verdict, but we will win it two years later. Who will manage the roads for two years? The government understands this," he said.