Why Chennai’s dream of a single transport authority remains unfulfilled

Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) Act was passed as a radical law to bring all the infrastructure and planning authorities in the city under a single umbrella.
Why Chennai’s dream of a single transport authority remains unfulfilled
Why Chennai’s dream of a single transport authority remains unfulfilled
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It was expected to radically transform the planning of public transport in Chennai city. But nine years after the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) Act received the Tamil Nadu Governor’s assent in 2011, the nodal body has yet to start functioning and remains only on paper. 

Chennai is known for its multiple modes of public transport systems spanning the length and breadth of the city. From the suburban train system, which started operating in the city almost a century ago to the swanky new metro rail, Chennai’s public transport system is considered one of the best in the country. Yet all these public transport modes run in isolation and not in tandem with each other, putting commuters in a difficult position. CUMTA was aimed at addressing these issues and revamping the entire network by bringing all the operators under a single umbrella.

A prompt for CUMTA

The Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) Act was passed in 2011 to serve as a planning agency which would supervise the work of other bodies in the transport sector in Chennai. The roots for a unified transport authority lie in the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP), which was introduced in 2006 by the Central government. The aim of the policy was to build sustainable urban transport in Indian cities.

The 2006 NUTP policy framed by the Centre recommended that a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) be set up in all cities with a population of over a million people. This entails collaborating with agencies like the World Bank, Global Environment Facility (GEF) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to devise a policy and implement it in the cities.

Based on this, the government of Tamil Nadu also passed the CUMTA Act in 2011, which was notified eight years later in 2019.

Members in CUMTA

According to the Act, CUMTA shall be led by the state Transport Minister and will have member representation from transport, finance, housing and urban development, highways, home, municipal administration and water supply departments and from the Chennai city police, Greater Chennai Corporation, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), Southern Railway, Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) and Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL). It also states that CUMTA shall act as the coordinating agency in the areas of transport and monitor the implementation of various traffic and transportation measures including promoting public transport systems in the city.

According to the Act, the state minister for transport will be the Chairman of CUMTA while the Chief Urban Planner of CMDA will be the Member Secretary of the Authority. This means that he will also be the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Authority, instead of a bureaucrat.

Speaking to TNM about the authority, a senior official at the CMDA says that CUMTA was formed with good intentions to optimise the several transport systems in Chennai and help agencies work towards the single aim of developing the city. He, however, observes that in many ways setting up CUMTA was not a voluntary move by the state government.  “It was also because of funding issues and the compulsion by the Union government,” he says. The official also says that setting up CUMTA became inevitable when the conditions for funding by World Bank also underwent changes.

“The international funding agencies also started pushing to set up a separate authority so that they can infuse funds directly to the agencies itself instead of routing it through the central or the state governments. Hence, it became imperative to set up CUMTA at least to receive funds from them,” the CMDA source adds.

Single umbrella for transport planning

Chennai is one of the best examples for a city that has seamless connectivity, says Sivasubramaniam Jayaraman, Manager, Transport Systems in Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).

At present, the multiple modes of public transport in Chennai are owned and operated by different agencies. The public buses are operated by Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) and the suburban and the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) railway system is being operated by Southern Railways. The metro rail network that runs in two corridors is owned and operated by Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL). Any expansion in the railway network is being done in coordination with agencies like the CMDA for activities like land acquisition.

Also, according to a forecast by the CMDA, by 2026, around 65% of all the transportation that will happen in Chennai will be through modes of public transport. To make this a reality, it is imperative to provide seamless connectivity to commuters across various public transport systems, instead of putting them in a difficult spot, looking for last mile connectivity. Especially when the ridership on MTC is falling year on year and CMRL’s ridership is yet to reach anywhere near its peak capacity.

And because there are multiple agencies involved, inordinate project delays are inevitable. This in turn impacts the general public who are dependent on public transport systems. CUMTA is meant to address these issues and club all the planning bodies under one umbrella so that all of them can work together when it comes to planning and executing public transport projects.

“Any decision for the city will be done in consultation with all the relevant departments. Usually what happens is that when one department undertakes a project, the other department says that they are not aware of it. There is a lot of duplication of work that happens. CUMTA will help agencies to work towards the city,” Sivasubramaniam notes.

Adding to this point, the CMDA official points to the example of CMRL’s corridor from Washermanpet to Airport which runs alongside the suburban railway line for most of its length. “If CUMTA was functioning when CMRL was planning its alignment, then it would have recommended that CMRL lay its line on some other lesser serviced part of the city and would have still made the project economically viable to attract funding. The current scenario is that CMRL is pulling people away from suburban railway and not attracting new ones, which is in contradiction to the end goal of making more people use public transport services,” he points out.

A year later, CUMTA still crawls

An Act that could potentially give a boost to multi-modal transport systems in Chennai, CUMTA still largely remains on paper. Besides notifying the Act and the Rules, nothing much has happened on the ground in relation to the Authority. In fact, CUMTA is yet to convene its first meeting with all its member agencies.

The necessity to get CUMTA off the ground was also stressed in a recent meeting on urban mobility in Chennai with officials from the World Bank. In the meeting, World Bank had emphasised routing the funding for all mobility-related projects in the city through a unified authority. It also urged the government to increase the staff strength in the agencies that are working towards promoting urban mobility in the city.

In the meeting it was also highlighted that the absence of a CUMTA-like body or a delay in making such a planning authority functional could lead to an illogical planning and execution of infrastructure projects like elevated corridors and pedestrian pathways.

The reasons that the Authority is in limbo are many, says the CMDA official.

“One reason is that the departments are not willing to give up their power. Till date, they had the sole authority to plan, approve and implement projects. But once CUMTA comes in, the other departments lose their power to plan and approve. They will then be in charge of implementation of what the CUMTA tells them to do, which is a huge step-down. That’s how they see it. Hence the resistance,” he says.

Another reason why CUMTA is still struggling to take off as a core planning authority around Chennai city’s transportation systems, according to the official, is the traditional notion that a technical expert cannot lead an agency, says the official. “It has always been the bureaucrats who lead such statutory bodies. So when a person with technical expertise is designated to lead CUMTA, bureaucrats generally don’t take it well and resist,” he explains.

Meanwhile Chennai residents associations, however, see CUMTA as a good idea but have expressed their doubts over the inordinate delays in getting the authority moving. “Why is there such a delay in making this happen on ground? And why is the government raking it up now after the delay of almost a decade since the Act was passed?” asks VS Jayaraman, the President of T Nagar Residents Welfare Association. Appreciating the intention behind the formation of CUMTA, Jayaraman also points out that there is no representation from civilians in the authority.

“I think CUMTA needs to have representation from residents also since it would lead to more collaboration in the planning stage itself. Absence of inputs from residents groups have only led to a lot of lawsuits which has stalled development works across the city,” he adds.

However, the CMDA official says that CUMTA’s first meeting will be convened within April 2020 and from then on, things will move smoothly.  

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