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Mumbai bridge to open after decade of delay

Workers are seen on a section of the Bandra-Worli sea link project in Mumbai, India, April 28. The bridge that links Bandra and the western suburbs of Mumbai with Worli and central Mumbai will open to traffic July 1, but portions remain under construction.   AP Photo by Gautam Singh

Workers are seen on a section of the Bandra-Worli sea link project in Mumbai, India, April 28. The bridge that links Bandra and the western suburbs of Mumbai with Worli and central Mumbai will open to traffic July 1, but portions remain under construction. AP Photo by Gautam Singh

Erika Kinetz
AP Business Writer

Mumbai, India — One of India’s most ambitious infrastructure projects — a $335 million bridge that cuts across a bay to link Mumbai with its fast-growing suburbs — opens Wednesday after being delayed for years by a thicket of lawsuits and bureaucratic wrangling.

More than a decade in the making, the 3.5-mile Bandra-Worli sea link is expected to cut driving time between central Mumbai and its Western suburbs from 40 minutes to just six. The project’s problems encapsulate the challenges India faces in creating the infrastructure it needs to sustain rapid growth.

The bridge’s pylons are 413 feet high, equivalent to 43-story buildings. It has 23,413 miles of wires, nearly the circumference of the earth. It weighs 670,000 tons, about as much as 50,000 African elephants.

It is an exceptional achievement for a country that has remained woefully behind its fast-growing neighbor, China, when it comes to infrastructure. The project has been plagued by years of litigation, street protests, and conflicts between the contractors and the government.

India’s new government has said infrastructure spending is a priority, but details of how such investment will be facilitated remain hazy.

A rising fiscal deficit and tight liquidity — thanks to the global financial crisis — have added to bureaucratic challenges and the complexities of large scale development in India’s freewheeling democracy.

The Planning Commission, a top government advisory body, estimated the nation may need to double its ports, roads, power, telecommunications and airport capacity — at a cost of $500 billion — through 2012.

The total cost of the bridge topped $335 million, nearly four times the initial budget. The state pitched in $119 million, and financed the rest with loans, which it plans to repay over the next three decades with toll revenues. Tolls will range depending on the size of the vehicle.

And despite the fanfare, the project is not yet complete.

Four lanes will open to the public July 1. The remaining four lanes will open in December. Meanwhile, tall yellow cranes reach into the sky and workers in blue helmets mill about.

Until now, a single, clogged artery — the despised Mahim causeway — has connected central Mumbai with the city’s western suburbs. An estimated 140,000 cars a day choke the narrow road.

The bridge was conceived as part of the Western Freeway Sea Link project, which one day may create an alternate road system along Mumbai’s western coast, from the lower tip of the city, Nariman Point, all the way up to the far northern suburb of Versova.

But construction hasn’t even begun on the other sections of the planned road, and serious concerns remain about traffic congestion at either end of the Bandra-Worli Bridge.

S. Srinivasan, director of bridges at Dar Al-Handash, which designed the sea link, said although he has seen “tremendous change” in recent years, India remains inexperienced with big civic projects. He said there is room to improve financing, organization and environmental controls.

“People need to walk before they run,” he said.

Ajit Gulabchand, chairman of Hindustan Construction Company Ltd., which did the construction, said he hopes the new government will boost infrastructure spending to 9 percent of gross domestic product by 2011, up from 4.5 percent now, and create a better investment environment for private companies.

“The present rates of interest are too high, the banks fear lack of liquidity and people worry the government will swamp the bond market,” he said.

“Serious reform” is needed, he said, “so we can bring about the pace of infrastructure construction the country needs and deserves.”

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