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HT Unclog Mumbai: Plans on track, bumps ahead

In the next decade, new train and metro services, roads and waterways have been planned for Mumbai. But will they change the way you travel?

unclog mumbai Updated: Nov 16, 2016 17:39 IST
Ketaki Ghoge
For you, the Mumbai commuter used to sharing one sqm space with 13 others in a local train compartment during peak hours, the state’s metro network plan can finally usher in a new age of travel. But here’s the hitch. Don’t expect more.
For you, the Mumbai commuter used to sharing one sqm space with 13 others in a local train compartment during peak hours, the state’s metro network plan can finally usher in a new age of travel. But here’s the hitch. Don’t expect more.(HT File)

By 2021, a swift metro network could link Colaba in the southern tip of the city to Andheri in the west; the eastern sprawl of Mankhurd to the northern end of Dahisar.

For you, the Mumbai commuter used to sharing one sqm space with 13 others in a local train compartment during peak hours, the state’s metro network plan can finally usher in a new age of travel. But here’s the hitch. Don’t expect more.

Forget about jumping modes of transport — from a metro train to a suburban local — using just an escalator or walkway. Don’t expect an AC bus shuttle outside the airport, like major airports. And, if you think it’s sensible to have a bus app for schedules and timings, or a single, cashless ticket for all transport systems, be ready to wait.

Seamless travel, a pipe dream?

With more than Rs1 lakh crore riding as investment in just public rail transit systems in the next five years, ideally, nothing should come in the way of Mumbai getting world-class services. Nothing except our planning authorities.

The task of this city’s transport overhaul is in the hands of many state agencies and a behemoth central authority, all chasing different infrastructure targets, none in charge of the entire city. The city’s only underground metro corridor plans to run 33.5km from Colaba to Andheri, connect six business areas, two airports and have five interchanges on the existing suburban railway stations. But, none of these interchanges will be close to existing stations to take the commuter right to her destination. It is not a technology problem, the cost is not prohibitive. It’s the Railways’ flat refusal to share its right of way. “At Mahalaxmi and Mumbai Central, for instance, our alignment (of the metro) was close to stations and could be under them to ensure interchange. But the Railways declined our proposals. They are not keen on any other authority poaching their right of way, even if it is underneath,’’ said a senior Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) official. “The end result is our Mahalaxmi station will be near Saat Rasta, the one at Mumbai Central, which could have adjoined the suburban station, is farther away. To ensure seamless travel, we plan walkways and underpasses, but this means more work and cost.”

The Railways is not the only spoilsport. Most government agencies have a way of pushing the file just an inch at a time. For instance, it took MMRCL eight months to get a plot of land at BKC belonging to another state department, even after the chief minister cleared the move. MMRCL, a joint venture between the Centre and state , is the nodal agency to implement the city’s only underground corridor. But it is now just one of the many players in Mumbai’s grand infrastructure overhaul. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) is responsible for planning and implementing five other metro corridors of the city. Why does MMRDA continue to be at the helm of building metros, when MMRCL was set up for this purpose? There are no answers.

“We realise commuters want end-to-end solutions. For integrated connectivity, we have floated two tenders for consultancy services. One, to integrate our planned metro network of 173km with the existing suburban railway, BEST buses, rickshaws and taxis, and the another for a unified ticket system. Both measures should ensure seamless connectivity,’’ said Pravin Darade, additional metropolitan commissioner, MMRDA.

Past experience, however, shows integration and last-mile connectivity, a hallmark of the world’s best transportation systems, is often not a priority. The monorail, also implemented by MMRDA, failed miserably as it was not integrated with the existing rail infrastructure. It was also not given feeder services. Another constant in how urban transport is planned is the commissioning studies, but these are rarely followed, questioning how consultative reports are implemented. The planning ‘bible’ MMRDA follows now was submitted in 2008. Less than 10% of it has been implemented.

The good news and the bad

More than a decade after the state first drafted its ‘Vision Mumbai’, a plan to transform the city into a global megapolis, the state’s focus is finally back on public transport. “After building link roads like Santacruz-Chembur Link Road and the Eastern Freeway, it became clear these solutions will not be enough to decongest the city. We have to focus on a public mass transport system, and given limitations on the carrying capacity of the suburban rail, a metro network is essential,” said Ashwini Bhide, the managing director of MMRCL. The other silver lining is CM Devendra Fadnavis putting his weight behind big-ticket projects.

Now, the bad news. The state’s metro network plan is already running a decade behind. Transport experts question the cost of the metro rail and whether we need seven corridors, when Mumbai’s population, according to a census report, is going to decline. “The Delhi Metro network of 213km carries 25 to 30 lakh people. Can Mumbai’s metro carry 80 lakh people, as state estimates? I think the state is running behind as far as its big-ticket infra projects are concerned, and losing sight of smaller reforms as they are not glamourous or lucrative enough,” transport expert Ashok Datar feels.

A senior state government official also admitted if the government stuck to its initial master plan of the Metro drawn up in 2004, and stuck to deadlines, seven corridors would not have been needed. “Our problem is, we don’t trust our plans and stick to them. Starting 4-5 corridors simultaneously is a challenge and can lead to funds spreading thin. A phase-wise implementation would have helped assess demand better,’’ he pointed out.

Datar also pointed out how easier solutions — AC coaches on existing trains, bus lanes and parking reforms — have been left out. Further, while the focus is mainly on public transport, the state is also planning to go ahead with ambitious road projects, such as the much-criticised coastal road, the Sewri-Worli elevated route and 20 other decongestors that will cost more than Rs20,000 crore.

Cheaper solutions do exist, like an audit of BEST buses that can be feeders for the upgraded suburban and metro rail networks; but these are not on anyone’s agenda. Plans for bus lanes and Bus Rapid Transit System have been put on the backburner, with the state’s political bosses wary of how the middle-class Mumbaiite may react.

“For things like a parking policy and bus lanes, we need a second term. In the first term, that’s not a priority. We will get booed by the average citizen,” said a state official associated with the makeover.

Missing changing contours

While scale of the transport overhaul is grand, it’s surprising how the makeover has overlooked the city’s changing demographics. Parel-Worli became business hubs after mill lands were redeveloped, but its growth makes it a prime example of flawed planning. Authorities at the time did not plan for better infrastructure, even when FSI was hiked to allow sky-high towers. The result: chaos and an untenable strain on the two closest suburban stations Parel and Elphinstone Road.

Bandra-Kurla Complex, the city’s biggest biz hub after Nariman Point and HQ to its planning authority MMRDA has a poor feeder system from the closest stations, Kurla and Bandra.”We are looking at how best to decongest BKC and Parel-Worli. The comprehensive mobility plan will help solve the traffic situation. We are looking at constructing missing links and widening roads near stations,’’ said Ajoy Mehta, Mumbai’s civic chief.

But experts feel out-of-the-box solutions such as a car-free zone in BKC or an underpass at Elphinstone station, may work better.

All in the execution

It took the state eight years to build the 4.7km-long Bandra-Worli sea link. It took seven years after construction began in 2008 to build the first line of the Mumbai Metro that covers just 11.4km. The Mumbai Transport Urban Project (MUTP) II, aimed at a overhaul by combining road and rail has been underway for a decade. The delays point to a dismal record in executing projects, and cost overruns borne by the public. Delhi finished its first 68km of the metro corridor in Rs10, 575 crore; conservative estimates put the cost of Mumbai’s 69km line at Rs27,452.

What the state is attempting by starting five metro corridors, a transharbour link and coastal road at one go, without ready funds, is audacious and lined with failure. Will the plans be executed on time or fall by the wayside after the 2019 polls?