Impasse over proposed route | Daily News
Rajagiriya – Athurugiriya Elevated Highway Project

Impasse over proposed route

A map of the proposed first and second alternatives to build the elevated highway from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya.
A map of the proposed first and second alternatives to build the elevated highway from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya.

The much-awaited Elevated Highway Project from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya, aimed at easing the ever-increasing traffic congestion in the area, has hit a snag over its proposed route. The Road Development Authority (RDA) has faced an onerous task in finding the best alternative to strike a balance between the social and environmental aspects of the project.

The development of the four-lane elevated highway, which is 17.3 km in length, stretching from New Kelani Bridge (Orugodawatte) to Athurugiriya was proposed in 2015 to improve the road network for the heavy influx of vehicles into Colombo city limits. Phase One (6.9 km in length) of the project has been planned from Orugodawatte to Rajagiriya and Phase Two (10.4 km long) from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya.

According to the Highways and Road Development and Petroleum Resources Ministry, the Orugodawatte end of the elevated highway connects to the Colombo–Katunayake Expressway and the Port Access Elevated Highway through the New Kelani Bridge Project. The Kelani Bridge expansion project has already been started, while the construction of the Port Access Elevated Highway is to commence shortly. The Athurugiriya end of the elevated highway connects to the Outer Circular Expressway.

Social impact

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of Phase One of the project from New Kelani Bridge to Rajagiriya has been completed by the RDA, and upon receipt of the report, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) forwarded it to a Technical Evaluation Committee.

According to the EIA report, the government will have to acquire 750 land lots with an extent of 3.62 hectares to build the elevated highway from New Kelani Bridge to Rajagiriya with a link to Baseline Road. It requires the resettlement of 1,010 families and the demolishing of about 34 shops, 42 shop houses and 42 self-employed business places. The land acquisition will leave 106 structures partially affected and 634 fully affected.

Since this is a highly residential area, land acquisition issues are not unexpected. Land issues have dragged Phase Two of the project, designed from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya, into an impasse even before it could proceed to the EIA stage. Pockets of bio-diversity scattered in the area have further complicated the task of selecting the path to build the elevated highway.

Environmental impact

The initial proposal of the RDA was to have the elevated highway over the recently constructed Averihena Lake, which serves as a flood retention area, and surrounding paddy fields. The selected area was a part of the Thalangama wetland which was declared an Environmental Protection Area under the National Environmental Act in 2007. This was enough reason for the CEA to express its concerns on possible environmental damage the project might cause to the wetland.

“It is the CEA that gazetted the Thalangama wetland as an Environmental Protection Area. Therefore, we have an issue in allowing this kind of development activity within that area. We are unable to approve such a proposal. True, it is not a natural eco-system, but over the years, it has gradually acquired the same status,” CEA Environmental Management and Assessment Division Deputy Director General Kanthi De Silva said.

“There is a tank constructed by the Irrigation Department, some paddy fields and a flood retention area. This area is important in terms of hydrology and it has rich ecology. The wetland is also the habitat of a large number of bird species. The entire area is rich in scenic beauty. We fear that the proposed elevated highway may damage this sensitive eco-system. Therefore, we expressed our concerns. The RDA told us that the elevated highway would not cause much environmental harm since it is constructed over pillars, but that does not fully address our concerns. It is our opinion that there will be significant damage to the wetland when the construction starts,” she added.

According to the CEA, a large number of birds, reptiles, mammals, fish and insect species has been recorded in the Thalangama Environmental Protection Area. The area is important in flood control and for agriculture, fisheries and recreational activities. The area is also utilised for research and educational purposes.

Residents perturbed

In the wake of these concerns raised by the CEA, the RDA proposed an alternative route from Pothuarawa, but the residents faced off the proposal asking as to why the RDA chose a highly residential area.

Kamal Nanayakkara, a Pothuarawa resident, said many families in the area are perturbed over the RDA’s proposal. He complained that many families in his area would lose their properties if the proposed elevated highway goes through Pothuarawa.

“We are not against the construction of this elevated highway. The frustration of having to face snarled traffic every morning has made us realise its importance.”

“However, the authorities must concentrate on minimising its social impact. The people who are affected by the proposed alternative route have been living in this area for ages. For example, the ownership of my inherited land is more than a century old.

We cannot understand the rationale of choosing a highly residential area for the project, shedding the initial proposal which would have caused the least social impact,” he said.

Deepa Nayanahari (55), another resident in the area who was recently widowed, said she fears the idea of having to resettle and restart life in a new place with her three daughters.

“I am a nursing sister at Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital and the current location is convenient for me to go to work. All my daughters are still studying. The neighbours in this area help me a lot. I am not in a position to settle elsewhere and cope with everyday problems in life alone,” she said.

She also complained that the residents in the area were not properly informed of the plan to acquire their lands for the project. “It was last December that I suddenly saw that the RDA had drawn marks in our area for the project. Only then did we get to know that an elevated highway had been planned over our lands. It was a rude shock,” she added.

Amila Nishantha (35), a resident in Pothuarawa and a Chartered Architect, argued that the RDA’s initial proposal to have the elevated highway over the Thalangama wetland does not cause much environmental harm as claimed by the CEA.

“It is a man-made environment with uncultivated paddy fields, a flood retention area and even jogging tracks. The lands belong to the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC). No private property will be affected if the RDA goes ahead with that plan. It is in our side of the area that a large number of birds can be observed as there is a lot of greenery. We wonder if some influential person living near the paddy fields is pressuring the government not to construct the elevated highway over the wetland as it blocks their view of the scenery,” he complained.

“Any development project must be designed to cause minimal impact on the people. If the road goes through Pothuarawa, about 200 families will be directly and indirectly affected. Well aware of the increasing land value and amenities in the area, the people, who have lived here for generations, are reluctant to resettle in a different area,” he said.

Feasibility study report

Taking all aspects and arguments into consideration, RDA Chairman Nihal Sooriyarachchi said the Authority, in its feasibility study, has come up with four alternatives in a bid to circumvent the land issues as much as possible.

According to the RDA Project Office, the feasibility study conducted by independent consultants is nearing completion and the final report will be submitted to the CEA within two weeks.

“After that, we will proceed to the EIA subject to the changes and conditions proposed by the CEA. In the feasibility study, we considered aspects such as the social impact, environmental impact, economic viability, technical viability, financial viability and so on,” the officials at the Project Office explained.

The first and second alternatives proposed by the RDA connect to the Outer Circular Expressway from the Athurugiriya interchange. The first alternative which runs through the Thalangama Wetland does not affect any houses, while the second alternative proposed through Pothuarawa requires the demolishing of 119 houses.

The third and fourth alternatives proposed by the RDA also involve highly residential areas. As explained by RDA officials, the third alternative is to connect the elevated highway to the Outer Circular Expressway from the Kaduwela interchange. This plan affects 162 houses. The fourth alternative is to connect it to the Kottawa interchange, the starting point of the Southern Expressway and Outer Circular Expressway. It would affect 406 houses.

“The fourth option is very costly and its length is comparatively more. We would recommend the first alternative. As the elevated highway is constructed over pillars, it won’t do cause environmental damage. However, the environmental officers in the CEA think otherwise. We tried to convince them that erecting three pillars on the edge of tank would be sufficient for the purpose,” said the RDA officials at the Project Office.

RDA Chairman Sooriyarachchi said a final decision on the road would be taken after considering all relevant aspects such as the cost-benefit analysis, environmental cost-benefit analysis, social cost-benefit analysis and so on.

“Land acquisition is a costly affair for the RDA and the difficulty in obtaining sufficient funds for the purpose causes delay in implementing the project. This project has to go ahead and the issues that have cropped up will be sorted out soon,” he said.

The average travel speed on this elevated highway once completed has been estimated to be 80kmph. As of now, this speed is about 10kmph or even less during peak time in the morning. 

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