Expressways: Path to Prosperity or Road to Ruin?

A Road in Haputale, Sri Lanka

By Thisuri Rojie Ekanayake

In the months since Sri Lanka was officially recognized as a country in default, surging prices, shortages and looming uncertainties have left the citizens to grapple with the uncomfortable question of how this all came to be. One aspect of the crisis that has garnered public criticism is the substantial expenses incurred on large infrastructure projects over the past decade or so. The term “white elephant” has been used to describe a myriad of projects that were undertaken with little to no practical value in relation to their costs. Although there has been a great deal of discussion on projects such as the Mattala International Airport or more recently, the Lotus Tower in Colombo, fewer conversations have taken place surrounding what connects many of these structures; that is the expressways themselves. Perhaps this is due to their usefulness being much more apparent to commuters when compared with other large scale projects, as well as the fact that ticket prices fail to fully reflect their costs. And so, a more thorough understanding of expressways is needed to reach a reliable conclusion.  

Expressways of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka currently operates five expressway routes that account for around 2.5% of the total road network in Sri Lanka consisting of “A”, “B” and “E” Class roads. According to the Ministry of Highways, the expressway system facilitated around 90,974 journeys each day in 20201. Apart from this, several new expressway projects such as the Port Access Elevated Highway project and the Elevated Highway Project from the New Kelani Bridge to Athurugiriya are currently underway.

Expressway (“E” Class Roads)Start point-End pointLength (km)
Southern ExpresswayKottawa-Mattala200.451
Outer Circular HighwayKerawalapitiya-Kottawa28.867
Colombo-Katunayake ExpresswayNew Kelani Bridge-Katunayake25.8
Section of Central ExpresswayMeerigama-Kurunegala 40.91
Andarawewa – HambantotaAndarawewa – Hambantota16.558

Source: Road Development Authority Sri Lanka

The very first of these, the Southern Expressway began construction in 2003 and was funded by loans provided by the Asia Development Bank (ADB) and Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) while its later extension was funded by the China Export-Import Bank of China (China Exim Bank). Similarly, Phase I (Kottawa-Kaduwela) and Phase II (Kaduwela-Kadawatha) of the Outer Circular Highway were funded mainly through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) while Phase III (Kadawatha-Kerawalapitiya) was funded by China Exim Bank. As such, these projects financed largely through foreign debt, have raised concern of whether they are viable investments at present. 

Supporters point to several motives for the construction of expressways. The economic feasibility report for the Central Expressway for instance highlights the time saved in traveling, lower costs in operating vehicles and number of accidents as well as decreased carbon emissions. Similarly, a report on the Southern Expressway points to the potential for regional development through improved connectivity. Although expressways do decrease travel times, their other outcomes tend to be more mixed. For instance, while some hail the expressway connecting the capital Colombo to Galle as a means to boost trade and tourism, questions also arise regarding its extension to Hambantota, where around 95% of the population live in the rural sector and would have little use for such a venture. 

A Worthwhile Investment? 

The task of assessing the full extent of the costs of expressways remains elusive. Among the financial costs, the most evident are the costs of constructing and also operating and maintaining expressways. According to the Director of Highway Operations (Maintenance and Management), the daily revenue generated from the expressway network prior to the economic crisis was around Rs. 28 Mn, which appears sufficient to fund its maintenance and operational costs2. However, the substantial decline in revenues following the fuel shortage and economic slowdown raises doubts regarding its ability to continue doing so in the future. Another major concern voiced since the inception of these projects was that the construction of expressways was funded largely by foreign debt, while generating rupee revenues. 

Expressways also carry less apparent costs that are difficult to quantify. Connectivity can certainly create new livelihood opportunities for some individuals at the destinations. On the other hand, it could mean a loss of livelihoods for those residing along the previously used routes and those being resettled due to the projects. At the destination too, there can be undesirable effects such as surging costs of living and inequality. Negative impacts in terms of the environment involve increased risk of flooding in the vicinity and a threat to wildlife. 

Large scale infrastructure projects such as these have also come under fire due to allegations of corruption and mismanagement of public funds as in the case of the Central Expressway.  Adding to this, studies have found that the construction costs of expressways in Sri Lanka were unusually high, even in relation to high-cost expressway projects in various other countries. 

Finally, some consideration should be given to the alternative uses for the funds allocated for these projects. In 2020, over half of the total budget allocated for the Ministry of Highways which overlooks all aspects of road development in the country was spent on expressways (Rs. 129.30 Mn.). And approximately two-thirds of this was financed through foreign borrowings. The total funds allocated for expressway development was also around 5% larger than the budget of the Ministry of Education within that year and over twice that of the Ministry of Transport. This begs the question of whether highways should be considered such a high priority when other aspects of the economy that affect a larger section of the population may greatly benefit from these funds. 

Final Thoughts…

It is undeniable that the development of infrastructure including expressways provides a great deal of convenience to citizens and has the potential to act as a catalyst for growth. Yet, if adequate measures are not taken to manage their costs, such projects would in fact add to the strain on an already fragile economy. This holds especially true in the case of Sri Lanka where the prioritization of expenses is vital since the available funds are very much limited. Given this, the unfortunate outcome of expressways being a burden rather than a benefit may have already been realized. As observed by Joan Robinson many decades prior, this then serves as a useful lesson for Sri Lanka on what happens if we continue to “eat the fruit before we plant the tree”. 

Photo by Thilina Panduwawala


  1. Excluding the section of the Central Expressway.
  2. The cost of maintenance and operations is based on the estimate provided in the economic feasibility report for the Central Expressway. For simplicity, it’s assumed that this cost is similar across the expressways, although this may in fact vary due to the differences in terrains, number of exits etc.

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