The government has decided to construct a bridge on the River Meghna, at Chandpur and Shariatpur points, to connect the country's southwest and southeast regions.
A well-placed source in the Bridges Division told The Business Standard that the government is going to announce the consultant for the project's feasibility study in March. The consultant will file a report within two years.
Originally, the government had planned to build the second Padma bridge at the Paturia-Daulatdia points in Manikganj and Rajbari.
But after assessing the benefits of building another Padma bridge to connect the southwestern region and Dhaka, the government is considering a new bridge that can connect southwestern districts with Chattogram or Sylhet without creating pressure on the capital.
Quazi Mohammad Ferdous, chief engineer of the Bridges Division, said the government had initially decided to build the second Padma bridge at Paturia-Daulatdia under public-private partnership (PPP) using the experience of constructing the Padma Bridge portion at the Mawa-Jazira point.
He said the PPP board had made a decision, in principle, in this regard but it was postponed recently.
"At the same time, the government is thinking about building a bridge over the Meghna at the Chandpur-Shariatpur point, which is expected to be more economically viable," he added.
Officials said the Bridges Division is going to formulate a master plan to construct bridges over major rivers across the country. The master plan will determine the time frame for the Padma bridge construction.
Considering the economic importance at the moment, the government is prioritising building the Meghna bridge.
In 2019, the Bridges Division invited tenders for appointing an international consultant to prepare its master plan and construct the Meghna bridge. The tender was scheduled to be submitted in January 2020 but was delayed for over a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The consulting firm from the tender was finalised in February and its name will be officially announced soon. A purchase proposal will then be sent to the cabinet for approval.
Officials said the total cost and length of the bridge as well as its possible economic benefits will be known after a feasibility study. The study will hopefully start in June, said Bridges Division Secretary Mohammed Belayet Hossain.
The secretary said the final decision will be made after the consultant submits its study.
Md Shamsul Hoque, a communication expert and a professor at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), said a survey on constructing the second Padma bridge – especially, considering how it could be built at the lowest cost – had been conducted about a decade ago.
"But a strategy has been adopted to build a bridge on the most profitable route. Considering that, it would be a good initiative to build a bridge on the Meghna in Chandpur. But everything has to be finalised based on the survey," he said.
Prof Shamsul Hoque suggested that the bridge should have rail connectivity in addition to roads.
Bridges Division officials said financing discussions would begin after the feasibility study report was finalised. It would then be easier for the government to decide whether the structure would be built under the PPP model or with funds from development partners.
Officials at the Economic Relations Division said complexities had arisen with the World Bank centring corruption allegations over the current Padma Bridge construction, leading to the global lender's cancellation of the loan deal.
Later, the Asian Development Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and the Islamic Development Bank also decided not to continue with financing the project.
But this time the World Bank and other development partners are expected to finance the second Padma bridge, regardless of where it is constructed.
Officials said opening the Mawa point of the Padma Bridge is just a matter of time now, and once the bridge is launched there will be increased traffic between the southeast and southwest regions.
If the bridge is built on the Meghna in Chandpur, it will be possible to avoid that pressure, which will reduce the waste of money, time and fuel.
Chattogram-bound vehicles from Khulna have to travel via Dhaka at present. But a Meghna bridge in Chandpur will reduce the distance by some 200 kilometres and vehicles will not have to travel through the capital.
The bridge will connect 11 southeast districts with 21 southwest districts. Chattogram, the Matarbari seaport, Cox's Bazar as well as the hill districts of Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban are in the southeastern part of the country while the Mongla and Payra seaports lie in the southwest.
The economy is expected to further flourish if the connectivity between the two regions improves. Trade with South Asian countries is also expected to grow.
Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute, said the Padma or the Meghna have separated two regions of the country. If a connection can be established between them, an economic link will also be created.
This would accelerate economic activities and reduce poverty, he said.
"Additionally, constructing the bridge via Chandpur and Shariatpur will reduce the pressure on Dhaka, but Dhaka-centric economic activities will not slow down.
"The bottom line is that this route will expand regional connectivity, and trade with neighbouring countries will also expand," Ahsan H Mansur explained.