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Ideas & Debate

Why Nairobi expressway project deserves support

Uhuru Highway
A section of Uhuru Highway in Nairobi. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO  

There are two planned highway projects that answer to the definition of expressways. There is the Nairobi city expressway (dubbed “upstairs” project) running from Mlolongo to the ABC exchange on Waiyaki Way, and there is the Mombasa/Nairobi expressway. Both are modelled on PPP (Private-Public-Partnership) funding by Chinese and American investors respectively, with toll payments by users. The two projects have attracted public debate with varying views.

The socio-economic justification for upgrading the city traffic artery through Uhuru Highway has never been in question and is mainly justified by time-cost of persons, vehicle and goods stranded in traffic snarl-ups. There is also the foreign exchange wasted as imported fuel is wastefully burned by idling vehicles, and incremental carbon dioxide and particulate emissions which impact the environment. There is also reputational cost to the country when fly-in visitors are stranded for hours in traffic gridlocks.

Planned dedication of a lane on the expressway to BRT (Bus Rapid Transport) will be a major value addition to the ongoing city traffic decongestion programme. Two by-passes (Eastern and Southern) together with other link-roads have already diverted significant traffic volumes away from Uhuru Highway. The “upstairs” expressway will hopefully provide the final solution, and this is why we need to give it a chance.

It is not the justifications for the city expressway that the public are debating, but the affordability of the project at a time when the country is heavily in debt. By opting for the PPP funding model, the government essentially transfers the project funding burden and responsibility to the motorists who will pay tolls (indirect “road taxes”) for its use.

After 20 years, the infrastructure will revert from the private investor to the government.

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Essentially it will be the tolls that will provide cash flows for the entire project costs which include capital and operating costs, a return for the investor and allowances to hedge against perceived economic and political country risks. It is the quantum of chargeable toll that will determine the expressway eventual popularity with the motorists.

And the devil is of course in the detail and caveats of the PPP contract and this being a single- sourced project, and with little public information available, surprises on toll quantification cannot be entirely ruled out. We should never have to compel motorists to use the tolled upstairs project when they have the option to use the un-tolled downstairs highway. The toll amount should be right to sustain use and funding of the PPP project.

The socio-environmental concerns associated with the project appear to have been addressed especially in respect of interference with the parks. It is also hoped that the project will not significantly interfere with the three religious sites (Lutheran, St Paul, and Pope Francis shrine) along Uhuru Highway.

By contrast, the planned Mombasa-to-Nairobi expressway which will be single-sourced from American private investors beats all manner of economic logic and justification. It does not make much sense to create new road competition for the SGR which is still struggling for cargo volume and fighting off competition from road transporters on the existing highway, which is still a good road undergoing upgrade. We have many contradictions here.

If Kenya has to help the US to make an entry into African infrastructure arena and effectively compete with the Chinese, better PPP projects can be made available to the US for consideration. The Mombasa/Nairobi expressway as currently conceived does not appear to measure up to economic expectations of today.

I will now shift the subject to the new ABC-Red Hill link road which has dramatically altered the traffic dynamics with significant reduction of travel time to the UN headquarters. However as with other successful by-passes and link-roads, a huge pile-up of traffic has been created at the Red Hill and Limuru Road junction. The authorities will need to debottleneck this section to maintain the gains made by the link road.

My final appeal is to the Cabinet Secretary for Transportation to facilitate Thika superhighway to be named after retired President Kibaki, a deserving request which does not require much justification.

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