ISLAMABAD: Mahmood Ahmed travels down the 26-kilometre Islamabad Expressway every day, and describes it as a nightmare.
Mr Ahmed, who lives in Korang Town, is one of thousands of commuters who use the Expressway, which connects Zero Point to the G.T. Road, and faces increasing traffic congestion.
“We celebrated the PML-N government’s step of earmarking Rs7 billion in the 2018-19 budget to expand this road but our happiness was shor-tlived as the PTI government dropped this project last year,” Mr Ahmed said.
“For the last year we have been hearing that the Capital Development Authority (CDA) will begin the project soon but no one knows when that ‘soon’ will come,” he said.
The Expressway is one of the busiest roads in Rawalpindi and Islamabad because it caters to both local and heavy traffic, particularly to and from Lahore. The road is an important link between Punjab, Azad Kashmir, the northern areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when it comes to the movement of the public and the transportation of goods, machinery and agricultural produce.
The expressway is one of the busiest roads in the twin cities because it caters to both local and heavy traffic, particularly to and from Lahore
Traffic on the Expressway has increased tremendously in the last 15 years because of a combination of economic growth - which triggered development work in the transportation sector - and housing developments established along the road.
The Expressway is actually just one portion of the road, which stretches from Faisal Mosque to the G.T. Road and is divided into three parts with different names. Between Faisal Mosque and Zero Point the road is called Faisal Avenue, from Zero Point to Koral - which is signal-free - it is called the Expressway, and from Koral to the G.T. Road it is called the Islamabad Highway.
The Expressway is a five-lane road but it transforms suddenly into a two-lane road near Koral, making it difficult for drivers to control their vehicles as they approach a major bottleneck at the Korang Bridge. Because of the higher volume of traffic and the axle-load of slow moving trucks on the two-lane portion, this part of the road is riddled with pavement distress and pavement failure, including heavy settlements, ruts and corrugation development, which have made the road unserviceable.
A study by a consultant in 2015 at the request of the CDA, the custodian of the road, recorded the average daily traffic on it to be 58,451. CDA officials now believe that the number has risen to 70,000.
In view of the growing demands of people living on either side of the road such as in Defence Housing Authority, Bahria Town, PWD, Gulberg Greens, Media Town and Ghori Town that depend on this road, the PML-N government approved a Rs10.7bn project in its last budget with Rs7bn earmarked for the 2018-19 fiscal year to expand the road from Koral to the G.T. Road.
But the government included this project in the Public Sector Development Project (PSDP) in haste, apparently to appease voters, when it had not been approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec).
When the PTI government took over, it dropped all unapproved projects from the PSDP. It has now allocated just Rs450 million for this project for the ongoing fiscal year.
The Expressway was expanded from Zero Point to Koral after the project was inaugurated by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 2015. The expansion included the construction of three interchanges — at I-8, Sohan and Iqbal Town and Koral - but work on the areas from Koral onward was not carried out.
According to the PC-I, this portion was to be carried out in two packages. The first would consist of expanding the road from Koral to Naval Anchorage, a 5km stretch, and the second would cover the 7km distance from Naval Anchorage to the G.T. Road.
The PC-I said the CDA would expand the existing four lanes from the Koral interchange to Naval Anchorage to eight by adding two rigid lanes and rehabilitating flexible ones. Three bridges at Korang, Bhinder and the Railways stop would be constructed as well, along with service roads.
The second package would widen the existing four lanes to eight and the Soan Bridge and construct a flyover at the G.T. Road as well as two underpasses, on the Kahuta and Japan roads.
People from the area have taken up this matter with the CDA frequently but to no avail. Young people and students have also been involved in a social media campaign for the last two years.
Hashim Ikram, one of the people spearheading the effort, said local youngsters had gone to nearly every appropriate forum but there had not been a positive outcome so far.
He said they had raised the issue on Facebook and Twitter, and met the CDA chairman, the special assistant to the prime minister on CDA affairs MNA Ali Nawaz Awan, the Islamabad deputy commissioner and police, urging them to take measures to ease people’s suffering.
Last year, the CDA began digging on the left side of the ride as part of a temporary relief measure for expansion but then left the work incomplete after a few days, Mr Ikram said.
He said this simply added to the difficulties facing road users because they left ditches along the road.
He added that if a truck develops a fault, a common occurrence, people have to wait for a long time for space to keep moving.
Mr Ikram said Deputy Commissioner Hamza Shafqaat banned the entry of heavy traffic during rush hour in December 2018 “but that ban could not be implemented.”
“Heavy traffic flow has been observed on the Islamabad Expressway during office timings - from 7am to 9am and 5pm to 7pm - which creates problems and nuisance for the general public,” he said.
The notification issued by the deputy commissioner dated Dec 11, 2018, stated: “The main reason behind this massive traffic jam is the flow of heavy transport vehicles…in view of foregoing above, it is hereby ordered that heavy transport vehicles are banned to enter on Islamabad Expressway during the said hours.”
A district administration official admitted that the notification was not implemented properly.
“We issued orders in the interest of the people but there were some issues. Under the law, we can ban entry within the city limits but cannot stop traffic coming from other provinces. Secondly, when we would stop traffic on the Expressway, traffic on G.T. Road also disturb badly,” the official said.
He added that some transporters also went to court, arguing that stopping traffic damaged perishables loaded on their vehicles.
A CDA engineer said the bottleneck wastes time for commuters, and when a vehicle is idle people have to leave their engines on, resulting in extra fuel consumption and emissions that increase air pollution.
If the federal government is reluctant to release funding, he said, the CDA should auction commercial plots from its huge land bank to generate funds for this project.
Islamabad Traffic Police spokesperson Shamas Gill also said the road needs immediate expansion. When a four-lane road turns into two lanes, he said, there is traffic congestion.
He said even if a small vehicle develops a fault, there is a traffic gridlock but police have made every effort to ensure traffic flows smoothly.
The CDA is working on two plans - a short-term solution and a long-term one – its spokesperson Syed Safdar Ali told Dawn. He said in the short term the authority would construct an underpass at PWD and Korang Bridge.
He said the CDA had already decided to fund these two projects with its own resources.
“We have asked the federal government to give us a go-ahead to start at least these two components. We have the funds for them at the government level; it has almost been decided that these components should be started,” he said, adding that once complete, the projects would significantly reduce traffic congestion on the road.
For the long-term solution, which is the expansion from Koral to the G.T. Road, the CDA will be looking for federal government funding and any other arrangements made by the government, such as a public-private partnership model, he said.
Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2020