Interview: Sumedha Ratnayake

To what extent is Sri Lanka’s economic productivity being impeded by road traffic congestion, and what is being done to alleviate the problem?

SUMEDHA RATNAYAKE: Modernising a very old road system is challenging due to the limited space in and around all major cities. Opening a new span of road systems is costly and difficult to complete. This inhibits business, particularly in sectors like real estate, because clients want to invest in well-connected areas.

The ministry has launched a short-term traffic management solution to address this issue, and has introduced priority lanes to highly congested townships such as Battaramulla, Rajagiriya and along the Galle road, offering a quick solution to congestion.

The results reported are very encouraging and authorities have been invited to offer suggestions on how to further sustain it until a long-term solution is implemented. Following studies by the Japan International Coordination Agency, the ministry awarded tenders for preparing a feasibility study for two light rail transport (LRT) lines, which will connect Fort with Maradana via Kollupitiya, Bambalapitiya, Borella and Union Place, covering 15 km along the perimeter of the Colombo business district. This should significantly reduce traffic congestion over the next three years.

The electrification of Colombo and suburban railway lines will also enhance the existing public transport system, and the Asian Development Bank has confirmed funding for this initiative. According to the Department of Railways, the project will begin in mid-2019, which is positive news for developers as it will provide a major relief to traffic congestion.

How can the private sector be further incentivised to participate in social housing projects?

RATNAYAKE: The Board of Investment currently offers incentives that allow private sector players to enjoy tax concession benefits. Incentives like bringing tax holidays to a maximum level could encourage greater private sector participation. Since the Urban Development Authority (UDA) also entered the housing market as a new player providing middle-income housing for government officers, the housing sector received a long-awaited boost. This set a precedent for private sector players to follow, ensuring they provide housing at decent prices based on affordability in the segment. I firmly believe malpractice in the housing sector can be prevented by introducing clear polices. Regulation will prevent companies from engaging in property development in this segment for short-term benefit.

How can Colombo ensure that its future population is dispersed across the city and not concentrated in the central business district?

RATNAYAKE: Currently, efforts to relocate administrative bodies and brand the Battaramulla area as the administrative city are in full swing. Once these things are done, the fort area will become the commercial district of Colombo, where financial sector business will be facilitated. Vertical buildings in this area could be used for housing or corporate offices and have sufficient amenities for incoming international conglomerates.

The LRT will be the main mode of travel transporting employees between home and work. This network will allow the public to move at a convenient pace. It will also create a connection between the business district, the administrative city and the financial city without adding to congestion on the roads.

The UDA is revisiting its development plans for the greater Colombo area at the moment. In accordance with the UDA’s new plan, the borders of the greater Colombo area will be extended up to key areas of the outer circular highway, which connects the satellite cities on the periphery. This will assist with relieving congestion by spreading the traffic towards the peripheral areas around the tech city, the logistic corridor and the new industrial parks. The closed outer circular highway will be a main focus of the UDA’s development agenda.