The transport sector accounts for one-third of the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) lending pipeline involving $16.56 billion for the next three years for Bangladesh as the global lender prioritises multimodal connectivity for a faster economic recovery from Covid-19 shocks.
Dhaka-Chattogram highway expansion, Dhaka-Cox's Bazar railway, Dhaka northwest corridor road, south corridor and Chattogram port access road improvement are among 19 projects identified by the ADB to finance in the 2022-24 period, according to documents of the ADB and the Economic Relations Division (ERD).
Of these projects, 13 are components of the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (Sasec) programme, an ADB-supported initiative that looks to promote better partnership among seven neighbours, including Bangladesh, in the areas of transport, trade facilitation, energy, and economic corridor development.
Other Sasec member countries are Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Road, rail, waterway to get priority
Dhaka Mass Rapid Transit, Tongi-Akhaura Dual Gauge, Dhaka-Sylhet corridor road and inland waterways have also been incorporated in the ADB's project list, indicating the lender's commitment to help Bangladesh develop a better road, rail and waterway network to prepare for a wider sub-regional connectivity.
Some of the projects are already in different phases of implementation, officials said.
ADB Country Director Manmohan Prakash, in an ADB report, said in the transport sector, the ADB will pursue multimodal transport network development (road, railway, inland waterways and urban). Priority will be given to Sasec corridors for enhanced regional connectivity and integration with regional and global value chains.
"In the road sector, the ADB will support the expansion of national highways to enhance regional and international trade and passenger movement, boost competitiveness and catalyse private investment and growth."
He said in the rail sector, a corridor approach will be adopted to complete the network and gauge standardisation. The ADB will consider expansion or rehabilitation of port facilities to increase capacity for trade and improve connectivity.
Aid to cushion pandemic shock
The ADB has streamlined its lending activities in Bangladesh to cushion economic shocks from Covid-19. In the lending pipeline, $5 billion has been proposed for road and rail and waterway projects to develop regional connectivity, according to the ADB and the ERD sources.
Work on the Elenga-Hatikumrul-Rangpur four-lane highway project under the Sasec Dhaka-Northwest Corridor road (phase 2) project is expected to be completed by 2024.
The ADB made a lending commitment amounting to $1,200 million in various phases for the project. The development lender has already disbursed $700 million for the project. Some $300 million will come in the third phase next year, while the remaining $200 million will be released in 2024.
Before the completion of the project, the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) wants to start work on the Sasec Dhaka-Northwest Corridor road (phase-3) in 2023. But it has not been decided yet whether a four-lane highway will be on the Rangpur-Banglabandha route or the Rangpur-Burimari route.
Officials of the RHD said under the project, both the roads can be upgraded to four-lane at the same time. The ADB has pledged to lend $400 million in the first phase of the project.
Dr Md Waliur Rahman, project director Sasec-II: Improvement of Elenga-Hatikamrul-Rangpur road to a four-lane highway project, said the project work has been affected because stone import from India has been disrupted in the pandemic. The project has so far made 32% physical progress. Measures have recently been taken to speed up work.
If the ADB releases loans in the third and fourth phases within the stipulated time, the pace of implementation will go up, he added.
Once this project is implemented, there will be a radical change in economic activities of the country's northern region. Work is also underway on the Sasec corridor-III project, which will boost trade with India, Waliur said.
The feasibility study of the Elenga-Hatikumrul-Rangpur four-lane highway project was conducted under the assistance of a sub-regional road transport project preparatory facility in 2014. The study found the annual average daily traffic to be at 28,240. The annual average daily traffic movement will increase to 57,000 in 2025.
Meanwhile, the Dhaka-Chattogram highway, the main economic lifeline of the country, will be upgraded to six or eight lanes. The government wants to start its construction in 2024, which will be preceded by a feasibility study with the ADB funding. The ADB will provide $400 million for this key project in the first phase in 2024.
The initiative to expand the Dhaka-Chattogram highway has been hanging in the balance for almost a decade. At one time, there was a plan to construct an expressway on it, but the government has recently backtracked on this decision. Besides, the government had planned to build a separate dedicated road on the Dhaka-Chattogram route.
Eventually, the RHD decided to widen the existing four-lane road. At the same time, work on another road will start next year to connect the Dhaka-Chattogram highway with the Chattogram port. The ADB will finance this project too.
Riaz Ahmad Jaber, additional chief engineer of the Roads and Highways Department, said the link will be a four lane road to enhance the connectivity with Chattogram port. The road will also be connected to the Karnaphuli tunnel.
He further said the feasibility study for upgrading the Dhaka-Chattogram highway to six or eight lanes will start soon.
There is also a proposal to upgrade the road from Daulatdia on the bank of the Padma to Barishal via Faridpur to four lanes to speed up communication with the southern part of the country. The project is also in the ADB's three-year lending pipeline. The development partner has assured a $400 million loan for the project in 2024.
$500m for Dhaka-Sylhet four-lane
The ADB-funded Dhaka-Sylhet four-lane project was approved at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council last February with a target to implement it by 2026. The ADB has already informed the ERD that it would give $500 million for the project in the second phase in 2023.
The Dhaka-Sylhet highway will have two service lanes for slow moving vehicles in addition to the four main lanes. The highway is very important for overall development, including more dynamism in trade and industry, through the connectivity to the Asian Highway Network, BIMSTEC corridor, Saarc corridor and other regional road networks, according to the project proposal.
Broad gauge in the east to connect with Trans-Asian Railway
Meanwhile, the railways ministry has taken an initiative to revamp the railway line from Dhaka to Cox's Bazar with ADB funding, through which the rail line in the east will be converted into broad gauge.
Besides, with the establishment of the Matarbari Port in Cox's Bazar and the bay container terminal in Chattogram, the traffic movement will increase significantly. Railways alongside road communication can play an important role in this case. In view of this, there are several projects in the ADB's lending pipeline to upgrade the Dhaka-Chattogram-Cox's Bazar railway lines in the next three years.
The ADB is shortlisting several projects on the basis of discussions with the railways ministry. Laksam-Chattogram mixed gauge, Tongi-Akhaura dual gauge, and Dhaka-Comilla cord line are on the list for ADB funding in new projects.
The development lender might also provide $500 million in loan for the Chattogram-Cox's Bazar rail line in the third phase.
SM Salimullah Bahar, chief planning officer of the Bangladesh Railway, said, "The existing railway line from Dhaka to Dohazari in Chattogram will be converted into broad gauge. We have already completed the feasibility study."
The installation of broad-gauge lines in the east will also make it easier for Bangladesh to be connected with China, Pakistan, India and Myanmar through the Trans-Asian Railway connectivity, he also said.
"We have also taken a project to assess the possibility of constructing a Dhaka-Cumilla chord line. We may take an initiative to build the chord line in the future based on this estimation," he added.
Waterway development in priority list
Roads and railways apart, the ADB is giving importance to inland waterway development. That is why a number of waterway projects, including for port development, have been put on the priority list for the next three years.
The ADB was encouraged to work on expressway network development, road connectivity to ports, road safety by grade separation at intersections, rural roads, logistics improvement, multimodal transport, development of land ports, inland waterways development and financing of mass rapid transits and subway.
In the railway sector, investment was sought for development of chord line between Dhaka and Laksham, dual gauge double lines, replacement of locomotives, ensuring safety at level crossings and for a new inland container depot at Dhirasram among others.
The Chattogram Port Authority emphasised the need for dedicated container trains to Dhaka, ICD development and construction of cold storage facilities.
Dr Pear Mohammad, additional secretary and wing chief of the ERD, said the ADB's lending pipeline has been created and all the projects will be implemented.
On many occasions, project proposals are made, but it is the approval process that delays project initiation. That is why development partner's funding in the pipeline might not be available for a project within the stipulated time. In that case, the pipeline may change.
Road infrastructure vital for connectivity
Professor Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for the Policy Dialogue, said, "We have ratified the BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement, a sub-regional connectivity initiative. We need to develop road infrastructure for its implementation."
Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) signed the deal for seamless movement of people and cargo among the neighbours.
To achieve multimodal connectivity, it is also important to upgrade railways and waterways in an integrated manner alongside roads, he said, adding that trade facilitation, single window, interoperability of systems, and custom requirements have to be developed too.
"Thus, we will be able to take advantage of boosting trade and drawing in investment. The country's competitiveness in this regional market, especially in India, will enhance with the increased investment, Mustafizur said.
"It is good for the country that the ADB is financing the regional connectivity project, which will bring benefits for our internal road, rail and waterway infrastructure."
Dr Mohammad Yunus, senior research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, said there is no alternative to developing transnational connectivity infrastructure to reap economic benefits through transits.
"India has given transit facilities to neighboring countries like Myanmar and we have a huge opportunity to benefit from it."
"We are constructing a port in Matarbari and work on the bay container terminal is also going on. If we can also build road and rail infrastructure, different states of India, Myanmar, Bhutan will use our port, which will increase our revenue. Singapore's port is being used by many countries. We can also gain by allowing others to use our port. In this way, our economy will be more dynamic," he added.