Commuters have waited a long time for the Eastern Freeway to open. It is scheduled for 2012, but the wait may grow longer.
Mumbaikars may have to wait another year or even longer to enjoy the much-anticipated smooth 30-minute drive on the Eastern Freeway. This major new road will whisk commuters direct from south Mumbai to the northern suburbs, up a route along the eastern coast of the city. The 22 km, Rs 1,000 crore corridor will run from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (the former Prince of Wales Museum) to the Eastern Express Highway in Ghatkopar.
The implementing agency is Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). Project officials say the work will be complete by the end of this year, but a visit to the construction sites offers a different picture.
Following the route along P D'Mello Road, which will be an elevated freeway above Mumbai Port Trust (MPT) land, it is evident that a lot of work is pending. Pillars are up, but girders are yet to be placed. J R Dhane, the MMRDA executive engineer for this stretch, says the work is 65-70 per cent complete from P D'Mello Road to Anil Panjrapole Link Road (APLR). On the other hand, workers at the site near the MPT's Orange Gate say the piling will require at least one more year. Work on the project began in January 2008.
Of the total 22 km, 17 km will be implemented in three sections. The first section runs from S V Patel Road junction (on P D'Mello Road) via Orange Gate and the Mumbai Port Trust area, before entering the salt pans and Customs areas. The second passes above Wadala Truck Terminal and connects to APLR near Bhakti Park. Finally, via APLR and a tunnel, it will join the Eastern Express Highway in Ghatkopar.
Work is in progress along the route from MPT to Wadala. M V Jaitpal, the executive engineer in charge of the APLR and tunnel stretch, says work is 58 per cent complete and they should finish by December. He adds that there were countless issues, including resettlement and rehabilitation for displaced families, and land acquisition, that led to delays. But now that approvals have been procured, he says there should be no further delay.
The tunnel is 500 metres long and is Mumbai's first twin tunnel. It passes through Trombay Hill, next to Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. In one tube of this tunnel, 270 metres is complete and road work is on. In the other tube, 250 metres have been excavated and lining of the tunnel is in progress. The first tube should be complete by August, but the second will be ready only by end-December. Jaitpal explains that the tunnel has been delayed because of the kind of soil it passes through, as a result of which the a special concrete lining had to be provided.
Residents who live near the tunnel site, however, offer a different picture. "The work has been going on for very long," says Gandesh Patil, a Panjrapole local. "Constructing a tunnel in such a mountain with such sensitive soil, seems to be a risky proposition." Another resident who works as a slum rehabilitation authority supervisor says, "I have been inside the tunnel for survey work with the authorities, and I believe it will take another one and a half years to complete it."
Dilip Kawathkar, Joint Project Director (PR) at MMRDA, justifies the delay and explains that it is chiefly because environmental clearances for the whole project were obtained very late. He is confident that MMRDA will finish the freeway by the end of the year.
Transport experts also give the project a positive outlook. Arun Mokashi, an independent consultant, says, "This is one of the most ambitious projects of MMRDA. Though there have been some delays, one should not underestimate the attempts made by officials. Looking at the project size and the clearances that were required from environment, customs and other departments, it was a messy project. But I can see that the project is moving. It is just a matter of some time. Once the project is complete, the travelling experience in Mumbai will never be the same again."
For now, it is work in progress. Until the freeway opens, commuters will have to contend with a bumpy 90-minute ride.