Bhanga-Benapole highway: Smoother link not so soon
Despite the opening of the Padma Bridge and the Madhumati Bridge, the country will not be able to reap the maximum benefit of the enhanced connectivity as the 129km road from Faridpur's Bhanga to Jashore's Benapole is still not ready for increased vehicular movement.
A plan for turning the two-lane Bhanga-Benapole road into a four-lane highway was chalked out long ago but it saw little progress, thanks mainly to uncertainty over funding, officials said.
Roads and Highways Department (RHD) has prepared two separate development project proposals (DPPs) -- one for acquiring land and relocating utility lines while another for physical works -- involving Tk 15,286 crore (BDT 89 per $1) to expand the road.
But it is not possible to say when the projects will be approved and when the work will start as both the proposals have to go through a lengthy process to get the final nod.
Even if the projects are approved this year, the land acquisition will take till June 2025 while the main project till 2027, as per the related documents.
In this situation, smooth road communication for the people of the southwestern region and vibrant cross-border connectivity is still a distant dream.
"We are not in the habit of doing anything with a comprehensive plan. We don't have the capacity either. This has been exposed here again," transport expert Prof Moazzem Hossain said.
WHY THIS ROAD IS IMPORTANT?
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in June inaugurated the long-cherished Padma Bridge, creating a direct link between the capital and the southwestern region.
The longest bridge in the country has cut the travel time significantly between the capital and the southwest. It is also a key component of the Asian Highway-1, which is expected to boost the economic growth of Asia and improve the country's standing in the continent.
The AH-1, connecting Meghalaya with West Bengal of India via Tamabil-Sylhet-Dhaka-Narail-Jashore, had two missing links: one is the Padma Bridge and another Kalna bridge, formally named Modhumoti Bridge, in Narail.
The prime minister will inaugurate the Modhumoti Bridge on Monday, meaning there will be no missing link left.
The government has already taken two projects to turn the two-lane highways from Dhaka to Sylhet and Sylhet to Tamabil into four-lane ones.
The expansion of the Dhaka-Sylhet highway will start this year and Sylhet-Tamabil highway early next year. On the other hand, the government has already turned the road from Dhaka to Bhanga into an expressway.
But the road from Bhanga to Benapole via Jashore is a two-lane highway, with a ferry terminal at Kalna point of Madhumati river in Narail.
So, most of the vehicles bound for Benapole, Jashore, Jhenaidah -- even many heading to Satkhira -- take Bhanga-Faridpur-Magura road avoiding the ferry route while some vehicles use the ferry service.
With the opening of the Madhumati Bridge at the Kalna point, which will establish a direct road link between Bhanga and Benapole, there will be a major shift in the movement of vehicles, including those for cross-border trade.
And most of the vehicles will use Bhanga-Narail-Jashore-Benapole road, experts and RHD officials said.
According to an RHD official, the distance from Dhaka to Jashore via Gabtoli-Paturia-Daulatdia-Magura-Jashore is 218km. It will be only 160km via Jatrabari-Padma Bridge-Madhumati Bridge.
Prof Moazzem said the feasibility study carried out for the Padma Bridge in 2003-2005 gave a clear picture of the possible changes in the road sector after the opening of the Padma Bridge.
"So, the authorities should have made plans considering all these things," he said.
The Madhumati Bridge would be the first six-lane bridge in the country.
"Can you imagine how weird it is if a six-lane bridge is connected with the two-lane road on both sides? The authorities should have opened a four-lane road along with the bridge," he told this correspondent on Thursday.
"But nothing happens here in a planned way. Besides, we have a fund crisis too," he added.
He, however, said if the two-lane road can be kept operational properly, it can deal with the growing traffic for two-three years at best.
"But if the road can't be expanded within two-three years, there will be a major problem," he said.
Bangladesh in October 2017 signed a $4.5 billion line of credit agreement with India, which is the third LoC deal between the two countries.
The Bhanga-Jashore-Benapole road expansion is among the projects that will be financed from the third LoC, RHD officials said.
RHD in July 2019 submitted a DPP to the Road Transport and Highways Division for acquiring land and moving the utility services lines as part of preparations for starting the physical work.
But the Planning Commission asked RHD to recast the DPP and when RHD, re-submitted it to the division again after necessary changes, the division in February this year once again asked for its recast.
RHD recently resubmitted the DPP, as per which the cost for acquiring land and moving the utility services lines would be Tk 4,236.60 crore. The full amount will come from the government fund.
On the other hand, RHD in December 2020 placed a DPP for the main project. But the division in June 2021 asked RHD to recast it.
When the DPP was resubmitted, the division, holding a meeting around two months ago, asked RHD to recast it again and ensure funding for the project before moving forward with it, official sources said.
The project cost would be Tk 11,050.04 crore, of which Tk 8,724.59 crore was supposed to come from the project aid.
Meanwhile, RHD, under a project funded by Asian Development Bank, completed a feasibility study and detailed design of the project in December 2021, the sources said.
"We are ready to move ahead with the project but we did not get a clear commitment regarding loan from India," an RHD official said, wishing not to be named.
Contacted, RHD Chief Engineer AKM Manir Hossain Pathan said the project is supposed to be implemented with the LoC fund.
"But there are some loan-related problems here," he told The Daily Star on Thursday when asked about the reason behind the delay.
He, however, did not go into further details.
An RHD official said the division has asked them to expedite the resubmission of the main DPP as the Madhumati Bridge will be opened on Monday, and the RHD is preparing to do it shortly.