With 11,000 kms of state highway roads, Tamil Nadu boasts of one of the best road networks in the country. But the future of the network may be jeopardized with the Supreme Courts recent ruling, stating that all bars and liquor shops within 500 mts from a state or national highway should be closed.
To beat the order, and possibly under pressure from the influential lobby of bar and hotel owners, the state highways department is now in the process of denotifying 3,000 kms of their roads in Tamil Nadu. They will be handed over to the respective local bodies for maintenance, upgradation, laying of new roads and construction of infrastructure on these roads. While urban planning experts say that this is a good move within cities, officials say it could spell doom for the state’s road network – especially in construction of new roads and upgradation of old ones.
Of the 11,000 kms of highway roads under the state government, 8,000 kms go through village panchayats. These roads cannot be denotified. The rest of the nearly 3,000 kms of roads will be handed over to local bodies. Which means instead of a single department with, uniform construction standards, looking after these roads, they will be maintained by 124 municipal corporations and 12 corporations in Tamil Nadu. “We are now fine tuning the process of the handover. It will be done very soon,” said a highways department official not wanting to be named.
Officials at the highways department said they considered downgrading these roads as major district roads. “But we are not sure how the Supreme court will view such a decision as the roads will still belong to us. We will be handing them to local bodies thus,” said the official.
By doing so, the government is opening a can of worms. With no single agency handling the design of the roads, the highways could lose their uniformity. The highways department follows the norms of the Indian Roads Congress (IRC). “Till 2012, Chennai corporation was not following any norms when it came to construction and maintenance of roads. It was always rule of the thumb. Features were implemented as per needs and resources available,” said a former corporation engineer, now working with the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI).
Some of the features of the IRC includes a camber in the middle of the road - which means a 2% increase in height to help water drain to the sides, construction of storm water drains and geometric considerations. “For example, along curves, the outer edge should be raised and be higher than the inner edge to counter centrifugal forces acting on the vehicle while taking a turn. The maximum height of the outer edge should be 7% more than the inner edge,” said former professor at Anna University's Urban Engineering department KP Subramanian.
For roads that support speeds of 80 kmph, the sight distance along curves should be at least 120 mts. This ensures that drivers are aware of oncoming traffic well in advance. The curvature radius of the curvature should also be within norms – 280 mts for roads catering to speeds of 50 kmph and 700 mts for road catering to 80 kmph. (If you consider the outer edge of curve of the road as an arch of a circle, the radius curvature is the distance between this arch and the centre of the circle.) This is to prevent sharp turns for fast moving vehicles. “Local bodies do not strong institutional mechanisms to implement these norms. And this could be dangerous to road users,” added the professor.
Local bodies do not even have the expertise to implement these norms. “The highways department appoints consultants for the designing and construction of roads to sustain movement of high speed traffic. Local bodies do have the resources or the expertise to do that. In fact, most of the engineers at the Chennai corporation and other corporations are mechanical engineers – when they need to be civil engineers. This is a basic necessity that is not followed in local bodies,” said the NHAI engineer.
The state highways have also identified 2,000 kms of roads to be upgraded as national highways. “NHAI will not take up roads maintained by local bodies as they take up only state highway roads for upgradation. Also, it will be a logistical nightmare for them to work with several local bodies for one project,” he said. “For example, we were planning to propose the East Coast Road; between Pondicherry and Kanyakumari; to be upgraded. But that cannot happen now,” he added.
The move will also put some of the work done by the department will go for a waste. “We are now in the process of acquiring land for the twin flyover project in Velachery. The process will go for a waste if we transfer our assets and the Chennai corporation will have to begin all over again,” said an official from the metro wing of the state highways department.
There is also uncertainty over 750 kms of road that are being funded by the World Bank under the Tamil Nadu Road Sector Project. “These roads are under a five-year maintenance contract. We are not sure with the World Bank will be ok with transferring them to local bodies,” said the official.
On the other side of the argument, urban planning experts say this is a move that should have been done long ago within urban areas. “Highways are meant for intercity traffic, not intracity mobility. The role of a road in urban areas is very different. The focus must be on the mobility of people, not speed of vehicles. They must have more intersections, more opportunities for pedestrians to cross, and trees and benches to make them comfortable as public spaces,” said South Asia Director of the Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) Shreya Gadepalli.
"In states like Gujarat and Maharashtra, as urban areas expand, assets of highways departments are transferred to respective urban local bodies. However, in cities of Tamil Nadu, most arterial roads come under the State Highways Department. It is impossible for people to cross these roads. They are designed like highways, not urban roads. On state highways' roads like Anna Salai, 100 Feet Road, Poonamallee High Road, and ECR, footpaths are missing or unusable," said Gadepalli.
"Chennai and Coimbatore have a non-motorised transport policy that puts walking, cycling, and public transport on top. For this policy to apply to all roads in these two cities, highways roads must be transferred to the municipal corporation," she added.