Bangabandhu Tunnel: Narrow roads hinder benefits

Shikalbaha area of Chattogram. The vehicles coming from Chatri Choumuhani junction of PAB road will join the Chattogram-Cox's Bazar highway at Shikalbaha Y junctionProthom Alo

The first communication tunnel under the Karnaphuli river in Chittagong is expected to be inaugurated in September, following completion of its construction. However, the convenience of reaching destinations quickly using the tunnel might face obstacles due to the underdeveloped Chattogram-Cox's Bazar highway.

This highway is crucial for vehicles coming from various parts of the country, including Dhaka, as it leads to popular tourist cities like Cox's Bazar and Bandarban through the tunnel. The current width of the highway is inadequate, with an average of only 18 feet.

With the potential opening of the Matarbari seaport in Cox's Bazar and Bangabandhu industrial zone in Mirsarai, the vehicular traffic on this already narrow highway is expected to increase significantly. Road transport experts have expressed concern about whether the highway can handle the additional pressure once the tunnel is operational.

The construction of the tunnel aims to enhance the Dhaka-Chattagram-Cox's Bazar road communications, but concerns have emerged regarding its full benefit due to the narrow roads. Engineers from the Roads and Highways Department, responsible for the highway, have stated that efforts are underway to double the road's width. However, they anticipate challenges in managing the increased traffic pressure.

The Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Tunnel under the Karnaphuli river in Chattogram has made significant progress, with completion reaching 98 per cent. The construction of the tunnel has been finished, and the current focus is on the electro-mechanical work.

The China Communications and Construction Company Limited (CCCCL) is the contractor working under the bridge authority, and the total cost of the tunnel construction amounts to Tk 106.89 billion. Additionally, a 5.35 km long connecting road between Patenga and Anwara upazilas has been completed.

Vehicles coming from all over the country including Dhaka to Cox's Bazar, Bandarban and South Chattogram will enter the tunnel through Patenga via Chattogram Toll Road and Chattogram City Outer Ring Road. These vehicles will first reach the Anwara's Chatri Chaumuhani through the connecting road.

Then the vehicles will head to Shikalbaha Y Junction of Karnaphuli Upazila of Chattogram-Cox's Bazar highway via PAB road. Although the works of the tunnel connecting road is completed, the vehicles coming from Chatri Choumuhani junction of PAB road will join the Chittagong-Cox's Bazar highway at Shikalbaha Y junction. But that highway is two-lane.

Prothom Alo's Anwara correspondent visited the area in person and found the construction of a roundabout at Shikalbaha Y Junction. This roundabout serves as the point where the six-lane PAB road connects with the two-lane highway.

The two-lane highway accommodates various types of vehicles, including large and small buses, CNG-auto-rickshaws, trucks, and covered vans. From Chattogram city, some vehicles use this highway to reach Patia, while others head towards Anwara. Similarly, vehicles coming from the Patia side of the highway split, with some going to Chattogram city and others heading towards Anwara.

Efforts to tackle the pressure by two lanes

The Chattogram-Cox's Bazar highway, stretching 130 km, has an average width of merely 18 feet. This road serves as the primary route for traveling by road to Cox's Bazar, the largest beach destination in the country.

Unfortunately, the journey for passengers to the tourist town of Cox's Bazar is often unpleasant. The narrow highway frequently experiences heavy traffic congestion, causing chaos and a lack of traffic discipline. As a result, traversing this route takes around four and a half to five hours.

On a daily basis, around 30,000 vehicles use this road, but the presence of slow-speed vehicles hinders high-speed ones from maintaining the specified speed limits. The narrow width of the highway contributes to frequent accidents, as pointed out by RHD engineers. Furthermore, traffic congestion leads to longer travel times for people reaching their destinations. The pressure on the road is expected to intensify once the tunnel is inaugurated. Moreover, Cox's Bazar is currently undergoing significant development for expanding industrialisation, including projects like seaports, power plants, and economic zones. With these developments fully operational, the existing roads may not be able to cope with the increased demand and pressure.

According to the Chattogram port plan, the Matarbari seaport in Cox's Bazar is expected to become operational by 2026. Once operational, the Matarbari seaport will serve as a hub for transporting products from factories located throughout the country, including Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Shilpanagar in Mirsarai, Chattogram. As a result, a significant increase in heavy vehicle traffic is anticipated on this highway.

Suman Singh, the Executive Engineer of South Chittagong Division of RHD, informed Prothom Alo that once the tunnel is opened, the traffic pressure will increase. To cope with the initial pressure, they are currently working on raising the 34 km section of the highway from Shikalbaha Y Junction to Keranihat in Satkania from 18 feet to 36 feet.

This upgrading project costs Tk 1.1 billion and is expected to be completed by June of next year. However, Singh believes that if the Cox's Bazar Matarbari seaport is operational, there will be no alternative but to expand the highway to six lanes. The existing roads may find it challenging to handle the increased traffic pressure in that scenario.

Six-lane project stuck due to fund problem

In September of last year, the Chattogram south division of RHD submitted a Development Project Proposal (DPP) to the ministry, outlining the plan to upgrade the Chattogram-Cox's Bazar highway to six lanes. The estimated cost for this expansion project is Tk 58 billion. However, there is still uncertainty regarding the funding source for the road expansion, as it has not been clarified whether it will be financed by government funds or through donor agencies.

According to a responsible engineer from RHD who spoke to Prothom Alo, there are doubts about obtaining approval for the substantial cost of the project, considering the current situation of the country. Discussions are ongoing to potentially secure funding for the project from Japan's donor agency, JICA, but no final decision has been made yet.

Engineer Subhash Barua, a road transport expert and vice president of the planned Chittagong Forum, pointed out that there was a need to widen the Chittagong-Cox's Bazar highway before or during the construction of the tunnel, but unfortunately, this was not carried out. Now, with the tunnel in operation, there seems to be no clear plan for how the vehicles will reach their destinations after passing through it. This lack of foresight has led to a situation where the full benefits of the project are not being fully realised.

*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition in Bangla has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat