Unprecedented tailback on the Dhaka-Chattogram highway has taken serious turn. After opening of the Feni overpass recently, the traffic movement on the highway slightly eased. But the situation is back to square again. The truckers still need 15 to 18 hours to reach Dhaka from the port city. For the last few days, prolonged stopover of cargo carriers from Feni to Dhaka is leaving not only the Dhaka-bound cargo carriers in a gridlock but also causing the unusual delay in shipment of export goods bound for the Chattogram port.
Businesses say the gridlock on the highway has led to stockpiling of containerised cargo in the port yards. Generally, around 4,500 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of import containers are delivered from the Chattogram port a day, which has come down to 3,500 TEUs a day on average. As such, the port yards are experiencing severe congestion.
An insignificant number of containers, according to reports, were delivered from the port during the last few days. Nearly half a million tonnes of rice, sugar, chickpeas, oil and other food items imported through the port for the Ramadan could not be transported to other districts due to the tailback. Export containers bound for the port, on the other hand, are also facing inordinate delay.
The apparel industry owners' association alleged that its members are miserably failing to meet the shipment schedule as 383 containers of export cargo could not avail the ships in the port. The situation has further worsened due to the restrictions of the axle control system imposed by the Roads and Highways Department (RHD). A transport mode, which had earlier carried 22 to 23 tonnes of cargo, cannot carry over 13 tonnes of cargo now due to the weight restriction.
The restriction on axle load is hampering the flow of supply of consumer goods to the countryside because the trucks that could carry more cargo are now permitted to carry a little more than half of the cargo. Businesses say such restrictions on the axle load control should be lifted at least for the holy month of Ramadan. The people throughout the country need unrestricted flow of supply of the Ramadan goods imported through the prime seaport. However, a minister has given assurance that the axle load control will be lifted during Ramadan.
The truckers, on the other hand are charging abnormally high fares on the ground of traffic gridlock that takes higher time to reach Dhaka than the usual. The port agency says it maintains the cut-off time to avoid ship congestion as practised in other ports of the world. Considering the request of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the limitations of the exporters and the importance of exports to the national economy, the port operator has reportedly further extended the cut-off time by 24 hours.
Unfinished work of the Dhaka-Chattogram four-lane project is, in fact, partly responsible for the nagging traffic congestion on the country's prime highway. Though the project was officially announced closed in June 2017, construction of Feni overpass along with three unfinished infrastructures under the four-lane project is yet to be completed.
The Bangladesh Army was given the work order by the RHD to complete the project's two unfinished overpasses and one bridge back in December 2016. The Army was given extra time until December 2017 after the project's main contractor failed to get the work done in time. However, reports say the army completed the Cumilla overpass and Eliotganj flyover in time. But the construction of the Fatehpur overpass in Feni was delayed. It was far behind the schedule due to a high volume of work.
On its part, the Army claimed that the current traffic congestion is not related to the construction work of the overpass. Due to inclement weather, it claimed, traffic management is not ensured in a proper way, making the situation unmanageable. However, they could not confirm how long it would take to complete the Fatehpur overpass.
The RHD claims that the long tailback on both sides of the overpass was created as traffic is being managed through two lanes, stopping one side of Dhaka-Chattogram highway alternatively. Besides, vehicles which have been bypassing the area through Feni bypass could not run smoothly due to dilapidated condition of the road. Road condition went abruptly bad for carrying out the reconstruction work during rains.
Traffic situation on the corridor is, however, likely to improve once one lane of the approach road of the overpass opens to traffic soon, the RHD claims.
Meanwhile, local bus associations observed a strike demanding immediate solution to traffic gridlock. The four-lane project of the highway, undertaken in 2004-2005, has been facing several challenges. From cancellation of the tender twice, four-time revision of the development project proposal, the project cost has increased to Tk 38 billion from Tk 16 billion. Construction of the bridge and overpass under bridge package-2 of the Dhaka-Chattogram four-lane project involved Tk 1.13 billion.
The long delay in unloading causes damages to a number of perishable food items. Perishable goods, mostly food items coming from India are being rotten. The long tailback is putting pressure on the Bangladesh Railway. According to the BR, it is unable to bear extra load of passengers and cargo due to long tailback on the highway.
It is not understood why the government is failing to take effective measures for ridding the highway of severe traffic congestion and ensuring speedy clearance of essentials. These goods are generally imported from India to help keep prices under control during the month of Ramadan.
Smooth traffic to and from Chattogram is very much essential for speedy supply of commodities across the country. To ensure this, there is a need for strong political will for developing an affordable public transport network throughout the country.