‘Home never felt so close’
Six minutes was all it took a BRTC bus to cross the 6.15km bridge over the Padma river yesterday.
If the 3.15 kilometres of the approach viaducts of the newly inaugurated bridge is included, the river crossing that once was a source of suffering took just nine minutes and 45 seconds.
"Unbelievable, surreal," exclaimed Sattar Moral, a bus passenger who was apparently trying to process the smoothness of the journey.
Before the country's longest bridge opened for vehicular movement at 6:00am yesterday, the 50-year-old resident of Faridpur's Bhanga upazila had to wait for hours in queue to get on a ferry.
In cases of inclement weather or the outward rush of people from the capital around Eid time, his miseries would only compound, making the journey excruciating.
But yesterday, it was a brand new experience on a brand new bridge as he made it home in just two hours.
"I can't express in words how I am feeling. Home never felt so close. It's just because of the Padma Bridge. What a beautiful bridge it is!" he said breathlessly.
The bridge's grand inauguration on Saturday and the start of vehicular movement on it yesterday were historic moments in Bangladesh's road communication.
A flurry of vehicles started streaming in and out of Dhaka soon after it opened, resulting in long queues of buses, trucks, cars and motorcycles before the toll plazas at Mawa point and on the Dhaka-Mawa Expressway. However, the pressure of vehicles started to ease as the day progressed.
The Daily Star correspondents took a trip on a BRTC bus to see the changes that the Padma Bridge has started to make on the once-strenuous journey to the southwestern districts of the country.
Starting from Fulbaria Bus Terminal in the capital's Gulistan at 10:30am, the passengers faced the all too familiar congestion leading up to the expressway at the Suvadda canal in Keraniganj. As the bus hit the expressway around 11:10am, excitement gripped passengers.
"What a smooth road it is!" one of the passengers exclaimed as the bus was heading towards the dream bridge at speed.
The entire expressway up to the toll plaza at the Mawa end was decked with various flowering plants in the median strip. Many of the passengers were seen taking photos and videos as the bus moved along.
It took only around 30 minutes for the bus to reach the toll plaza. As soon as the bus driver started towards the bridge after paying the toll, which took less than a minute, there was a stirring among all passengers as they made final preparations to experience their slice of history -- the first crossing of the Padma Bridge.
Some burst into joy and others turned to the windows to catch a glimpse of the mighty structure. Most of the passengers started recording the journey, while some shared the experience with their relatives through video calls.
"I have been trying to reach you for quite some time. Look, here is the bridge and I am crossing it," an excited Safia Khatun told her daughter over the phone. Her husband, sitting beside her, piped up excitedly: "Look Ma, how beautiful the bridge is!"
Sexagenarian Mohammad Shafiul, a resident of Shariatpur, could not believe his eyes as the bus moved along the bridge.
"It was a dream that came true … I finally crossed the bridge," he said.
"My home is close to Dhaka. It is barely 10 kilometres from the river. There were times when I had to spend seven to eight hours on the banks of the Padma before Eid. That is over now," he said.
The bridge wore a festive look as it had been overflowing with crowds of people, many of whom came to see the bridge.
Flouting government instructions, they were seen stopping motorbikes and cars to get a feel of the bridge, taking selfies and group photographs. Bikers were seen posing with their two-wheelers propped against Padma Bridge's railings.
The Cabinet Division issued a notification yesterday, saying stopping vehicles, walking around on Padma Bridge, and taking pictures are completely prohibited and punishable offences.
Authorities of the Padma Bridge project asked the engineering support and safety team to beef up vigilance on the upper deck of the bridge and on both sides after incidents of damaging the bridge were reported.
The first eight hours on the opening day saw 15,200 vehicles crossing the bridge since it was opened to traffic at 6:00am. Around Tk 82.19 lakh toll was collected from vehicles till 2:00pm, an official of Bangladesh Bridge Authority told The Daily Star.
Soon, the bus reached Bhanga intersection, around 20km away from the Padma Bridge connecting road. Most of the passengers, including these correspondents, got down as the bus started for a return trip. BRTC expanded its services on 21 routes in southwestern region including Dhaka-Bhanga yesterday.
"I cannot believe I reached so fast," said Saiful, a passenger.
The bus driver, Jashim Uddin, was no less amazed. "There were times when we got stranded for the entire night at the ferry terminal. Now we will be able to make trips to and from Dhaka quickly. This will increase our income."
The correspondents got on another BRTC bus to return to Dhaka. Many of the passengers boarded the bus to see the Padma Bridge. The bus began its journey at 2:18pm.
Around 2:45pm, the bus reached the toll plaza at the Zanjira end. A huge crowd was found near there. Many had come to see the bridge.
As the bus got on the bridge, the passengers could barely contain their excitement and, seeing the crowd of people already on the bridge, they requested the driver to stop for a moment.
The driver succumbed to the requests and stopped for a minute. All the passengers got down from the bus and started taking photos and videos of the bridge.
"I came near the bridge site yesterday [Saturday], but could not see it up so close. Today I have been able to touch the bridge finally. It's a dream come true for me," said one of the passengers.
The bus started rolling again and drove almost uninterruptedly until it reached Babu Bazar bridge over the Buriganga river at 3:47pm. It took 40 minutes for the bus to reach Fullbaria from the north end of Babu Bazar bridge, a distance of little over two kilometres.
Now that the bridge has opened and transport from the southern parts are coming to Dhaka more smoothly and quickly, traffic congestion became a spot of bother.
"We reached Babu Bazar in an hour, but now we are stuck in a jam for more than half an hour. We need to fix this problem. Else, we won't get the full benefit of the Padma Bridge," said a passenger.