The vision was grand. A dedicated bus transit, formally called Bus Rapid Transit or BRT, which would sweep around 20,000 riders 20.5 kilometres into downtown Gazipur from Dhaka airport every hour. But now it is a glaring example of how imprudent planning, a lack of farsightedness and subsequent cost overruns can leave a project hanging in the balance.
The Tk2,040 crore estimate in 2012 was hardly cheap – nearly Tk100 crore per kilometre. The cost escalation since then has been astronomical.
The launch dates got postponed time and again and cost estimates crept upward – at latest count, around Tk4,268 crore with 109% hike over the years with a completion date of December this year.
From the very beginning, the planners have been flip-flopping on different components of the Airport-Gazipur BRT project. First, they thought up a four-lane transit, then cut it to two lanes. In another revision, they reduced the number of bus stations to 23 from the initial 31.
They also felt a need for lanes for non-motorised transport and pedestrians on Tongi bridge which they had not thought about initially.
Ten years into the long-delayed project, it has now dawned on the project authorities that there needs to be a fencing between the bus rapid transit and the mass transport costing Tk20 crore and they also feel the road surface thickness has to be increased by up to 167% based on requirements.
The Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges, which is implementing the BRT project, has taken an initiative to make a massive change in the project design, which will discard the plans to construct a few kitchen markets in Gazipur and an underpass involving a cost of Tk420 crore at the Dhaka airport area.
The frequent changes in technical specification and design of the BRT project, which has made around 80% progress, seems to be never-ending. The project authorities in its latest proposal to the Planning Commission now seek one more year to complete it.
If the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council gives its go-ahead to the fifth extension proposal, the project will be completed in December next year. Thus, a four-year job will enter 11th year because of the myriad problems starting with feasibility study to project formulation to design to implementation.
A project evaluation committee (PEC) in a meeting arranged by the Physical Infrastructure Division of the Planning Commission on Thursday, expressed its displeasure at the authorities' proposal for getting one more year to complete the project that already went through four time extensions. It also wanted to know what kind of disciplinary action had been taken against those involved in making faulty design and negligent in the project work.
In the earlier revision, the road transport and bridges ministry had changed the width of the Tongi bridge, opted for construction of at-grade overpasses at each station instead of underpasses, changed length and width of six flyovers, increased the length of the elevated portion by one kilometre reducing the at-grade part and added construction of services lanes and footpaths.
Experts believe that there is no precedent for such frequent changes in the design of any development project in Bangladesh or even anywhere in the world.
Transport expert Professor M Shamsul Haque told The Business Standard that there can be no justification for spending more than a decade on such a project.
The bus rapid transit had been planned without considering construction of separate footpaths in labour-intensive industrial areas like Gazipur. Besides, there had been no plan to develop a drainage system to deal with waterlogging, he noted.
The project is now facing uncertainty because of so many changes a long time after it was taken up, he also said.
The ongoing BRT construction cost is at least 10 times more than the global standard. As a result, he believes that the project will no longer be profitable.
Satyajit Karmaker, member at Physical Infrastructure Division of the Planning Commission, who presided over the PEC meeting on Thursday, said the meeting decided to recommend approving the proposal to revise the project, subject to compliance with some conditions.
The authorities must ensure safety and security at the construction site, and all of the remaining works have to be concluded within the proposed extended time, he also said, adding that the meeting strictly recommended not adding any irrational new component to the project.
The meeting also expressed concern over delays in implementing the project and frequent accidents on the construction site, he said.
Shafiqul Islam, managing director of Dhaka Bus Rapid Transit Company Limited, said the project has made almost 80% progress. If work continues at the ongoing pace, the BRT will be opened to traffic in June next year.
ASM Elias Shah, project director (RHD) of the BRT project, told TBS that some components will be added to the project for meeting the needs identified during implementation.
"The PEC meeting decided to extend the project for another year and we are confident about concluding all the works within the stipulated time."