Road ready: Highways are set for major expansion as the rest of the network undergoes rehabilitation


Sri Lanka has the highest road density of any country in South Asia, with some 173.9 km of roads per 100 sq km of land as of 2015, according to the World Bank. This compares with 139.4 km in India and 32.86 km in Pakistan. In 2012 roads also carried around 93% of all passenger traffic and 97% of all domestic freight traffic – figures which are unlikely to have altered much since.


Thus, the nation’s highways are the mainstay of the domestic transport sector. Its road network has also been expanding in recent years, from 92,700 km in 2004 to around 100,000 km by 2013 before reaching 115,900 km in 2016. The network was, however, badly affected by the years of civil conflict; a lack of maintenance and physical damage affected many rural roads in particular. The World Bank’s Road Sector Assistance Project, which ran from 2005 to 2015, helped to mitigate some of this degradation, though, with a major overhaul of both national and rural roads.

Now, Sri Lanka faces the challenge of building on this existing network, while also rolling out an ambitious scheme of highway development. The future of the country’s railways, a legacy of British colonial times, is also gaining wider attention, as Sri Lanka investigates more efficient and environmentally sound methods for carrying both passengers and cargo.

Road Runners

The Ministry of Higher Education and Highways (MHEH) is the chief government body responsible for the country’s national Class-A and Class-B roads, along with its Class-E expressways. In February 2016 there were 4215 km of Class-A roads, 7995 km of Class B and 170 km of Class E within its purview. Class-A roads, which further subdivide into AA, AB and AC, are those that connect major cities, while Classes B and C connect major urban areas. As a relatively new addition, Class-E roads link major cities and ports.

The MHEH also has the Road Development Authority (RDA) under its umbrella. The RDA, which is charged with planning and maintaining the national highway network, along with planning, designing and building new structures for the roadways, was responsible for the 2007-17 National Road Master Plan (NRMP). The NRMP was integrated with the previous government’s long-term economic development strategy for the country as a whole, and the current government is retaining some of these objectives. Yet, it has stressed a greater commitment to public-private partnerships, raising the possibility of more private sector involvement in the future development of the roads network.

Meanwhile, Class-C and D roads, which are major and minor feeder roads, fall under the responsibility of the Ministry of Provincial Councils and Local Government (MPCLG), while local authorities are responsible for local roads. Tracks and access routes in plantations and agricultural areas are the purview of the Ministry of Rural Development, private companies and rural cooperatives, depending on circumstance.


Two major expressway projects have already been completed. The first of these, the dual carriageway EO1, runs from the Colombo suburb of Kottawa to Godagama, just outside the southern city of Matara. The route extends beyond Galle, which is now connected to the capital by a journey of just two hours. Construction of the 126-km route, completed in 2014, was funded by the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Sri Lankan government and the Export-Import Bank of China (China EximBank). The EO1 also contains the longest bridge in the country, reaching across the Bentara River for some 700 metres.

A second major highway is the EO3, linking Colombo with Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), the country’s primary international gateway. This runs for some 26 km, has four interchanges and was financed by a loan from China EximBank. Opened in 2013, the EO3 provides a rapid transit route to Negombo, which is a developing tourist centre north of the capital. In the government’s budget speech in November 2016 an extension to the EO3 north to Puttalam was also proposed.

In The Works

The new EO2, meanwhile, known as the Outer Circular Highway, runs around Colombo, connecting with the EO2. Phase one, from Kottawa to Kaduwela, and phase two, from Kaduwela to Kadawatha, were opened in March 2014 and September 2015, respectively. Both sections were financed with the help of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Phase three then runs from Kaduwela to Kerawalapitiya. At the time of writing, the RDA completion date for the project was June 2019.

The EO2 will provide access to the next major highway project, an expressway providing a link between the modern capital, Colombo, and the ancient capital, Kandy. The EO4, or North East Colombo-Kandy expressway project, will allow for maximum speeds of 100 km per hour and be rolled out in two phases: Kadawatha to Ambepussa, and Ambepussa to Katugastota. The two phases of the EO4 break down into four subsections. The third subsection represents the biggest structural challenge, as it passes through the mountainous terrain of Kadugannaw. In late 2016 this stretch of the project was undergoing an environmental impact assessment, with the MHEH declaring that the highway would be completed by the end of 2019.

The EO4 is being fast-tracked by the government, as is the final expressway project currently on the books: the EO6 or Ruwanpura Expressway. This will run for 71 km from Kahataduwa to Pelmadulla, via Ratnapura. Funding has been secured from China EximBank, and survey work was under way as of the end of 2016. The EO6 is set for completion in 2019. All these highways are toll roads, and the expectation is that the network will eventually connect all the island’s major cities.

Meanwhile, the MHEH and the RDA are also developing the A and B road networks, while the MPCLG has been running a series of provincial road development projects, often with ADB and JICA assistance.

Another major target for the road network has been to reduce congestion in Colombo. The 2017 budget thus included plans for elevated highways in the city, connecting Kelani Bridge to the Port of Colombo area and Athurugiriya. The development of Colombo Port City also poses challenges for the road network, with plans to develop commercial and residential real estate there adding to downtown congestion.

Colombo Municipal Council and the RDA have begun to roll out a Public Transport Modernisation Programme, which has started to designate bus lanes or bus-priority lanes around the capital. The Sri L ankan Transport Board (SLTB) currently operates the country’s intercity buses in competition with a range of private operators. The SLTB comes under the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, and has been operating at a loss in recent years. The government’s budget plans for 2017 indicated a new efficiency and cost-cutting drive for the SLTB, with government support being scaled back and profitability made more of a goal.

Rail Relief

Also mentioned in the 2017 budget were plans for a light rail transit (LRT) system for the capital and its surrounding area, with tenders released in early 2017 and construction planned for 2020. Seven transit corridors have been highlighted, with a soft loan from JICA to finance the construction. JICA is also supporting the design and construction of the first two LRT lines. Plans for the LRT included 75 km of track, 25 km of it elevated, with three routes in the central business district, and four others extending to the suburbs of Kollupitiya, Bambalapitiya, Borella, Maradana, Rajagiriya, Battaramulla and Malabe.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) was also singled out in the 2017 budget for criticism over its reliance on government subsidies. SLR operates a network of three regions – Colombo in the west, Nawalapitiya in the south and Anuradhapura in the centre and north. It runs 411 trains a day on 1340 km of track. Locomotives are all diesel, and the network is currently exclusively passenger, except for small goods and parcels, and oil tanker cargo from Colombo to BIA. This latter service, however, is due to end soon, as a pipeline is currently being constructed to the airport (see Energy chapter).


In late 2016 SLR announced a new initiative to electrify its services. A tender for a feasibility study was published in early 2017 by the ADB, and involves the modernisation and electrification of the Veyagoda-Polgahawela, Regama-Negombo and Maradana-Homagama lines. Construction on these routes is expected by 2020-21, with ADB support. There is also discussion about boosting the cargo role of SriLanka Airlines, which has been neglected in recent times.

The years ahead look to be busy for Sri Lanka’s land transport sector, with more efficient road and rail services coming on-line. However, plans for major urban development in and around Colombo have to be coordinated with these schemes, as projects such as the Port City and the urban development-focused Western Region Megapolis Planning Project will have major implications for the transport network. Away from the metropolis, much depends on road and rail development, if the benefits of economic growth are to become more widely spread across the island.