Developing a sustainable road network

Shafiq Alam | Published: June 10, 2018 21:38:36 | Updated: June 13, 2018 21:39:20

Bangladesh is set to officially graduate to a developing country status from a least developed one by 2024. Development is now visible in every sector of the country. As a priority infrastructure sector, thousands of millions of taka are being invested in various road projects too. Unfortunately, the taxpayers in general are unhappy with the quality of the roads thus created.

Most of the roads are weak in structural strength and suffer significant damages during every rainy season. There are scores of media reports on corruption, inefficiency, mis-procurement etc as major reasons behind the poor performances of the roads. A recent study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) placed Bangladesh's roads as the second worst in Asia. So the huge investment in the sector is not only failing to deliver the fruits, but the poor roads are also hindering the prospect of every other economic sector of the country. As such, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive national policy measure for the sector and any further delay to address the stalemate may worryingly cause a setback to the nation's expectation to become a developed country by 2041.

As institutional reorganisation is the key to success for any development. Road agencies, in this particular case, should be the focus of the proposed reform. Since independence, there is no mentionable institutional progress in the sector other than the creation of two road agencies - Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) and Bangladesh Bridge Authority (BBA). Traditional bureaucracy-led management approach has grossly failed to modernise the road agencies deemed essential for the need of a rapidly developing nation.

Bangladesh needs a modern national road agency in the first place to manage all the national, regional and district connecting roads. The Roads and Highways Department (RHD) needs to be overhauled to meet the national need. The agency may be given greater autonomy for speedy decision making, and retention of specialised engineers/technocrats in their respective field through training, promotions and incentives. For optimum professional delivery and to ensure accountability, the head of the agency and other senior positions can be appointed on contractual basis from among the qualified departmental senior professionals.

The government may further consider merger of BBA with RHD to create a single national organisation for efficient and cost-effective project development and delivery, eliminating conflict of interest for network and project ownership, and create a national flagship entity for road infrastructure work and services standards.

LGED, city corporations, city development authorities and municipalities manage all other roads, which are collectively more than 200,000-kilometre long, along with various other infrastructural assets and services. This often results in inadequate attention to the technical and managerial aspects of roads. As such, LGED and the city corporations need separate engineering setup and specialised technical streams for road work.

Road is a complex engineering structure, which needs country-specific design standards for cost-effective and sustainable development. Absence of road sector research in Bangladesh has led to the application of overseas design standards, which can be blamed as the major reason for the premature failure of many roads, huge cost of construction, high number of accidents and other road-related problems. Bangladesh doesn't own a national road research organisation yet.

Most of the developed and developing countries have road professional bodies, such as the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) established in 1914 and the Indian Road Congress (IRC) established in 1934, which lead the development of their national standards, specifications, manuals etc for road work and management. A similar organisation, Bangladesh Society of Road Professionals (BSRP) was established in 2009. The absence of adequate government support might be the reason behind no visible activity of the Society.

Roads need continuous maintenance, and any delay reduces their life significantly. It needs a lot of money, which needs to be ensured. It has been in discussion for a long time for the creation of Bangladesh Road Fund Authority (BRFA), which will get revenues from vehicle, fuel, tyre etc by way of road transport-related sales, vehicle registration, tolls and other sources. Establishment of BRFA can ensure guaranteed maintenance fund and accountability of the road agencies for the quality of the work.

There was a big national uproar in January 2018 to save hundreds of century-old trees along the Jessore-Benapole highway from getting cut to widen the road. In fact, the ongoing and upcoming major national road projects have significant environmental and heritage concerns because of absence of appropriate guidelines and mitigation mechanism in place. The government in this regard should take immediate steps, including the creation of specialised 'Environment and Heritage Unit' with adequate resources under each road agency.

Finally, creation of a National Road Board (NRB) may be a game changer for holistic improvement of the country's road transport sector. The Board will coordinate with different road agencies, participating ministries, Planning Commission, Central Procurement Technical Unit (CPTU), National Road Safety Council (NRSC) and various other relevant organisations to develop and implement national road sector strategic plans. The highway police (HP), BRFA and NRRI can be placed under the NRB for improvement of their services. Like the BRFA, a Road Safety Authority (RSA) can also be created under the NRB to develop and deliver targeted road safety work and public awareness campaigns by different agencies. The NRB will, therefore, be responsible for the overall achievement of the country's road sector.

A comprehensive institutional reform agenda should be undertaken for developing and managing a safe, sound and sustainable road network across the country. There are different execution models in different countries, which the government may consider reviewing and deciding on a framework that, without failure, best serves towards a developed Bangladesh by the year 2041.

Dr. Shafiq Alam, CPEng, is a Road Infrastructure Specialist working in Australia.

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