Our cities are built with very low densities (floor space indices) means that they are unable to take on the correct spatial orientation of economic activities. This, of course, makes them socially expensive, and much more spread out than they need to be.
On highways in India you are most of time driving into and out of the periphery of cities, and (since we could not ‘afford’ service roads) around habitats on the way. The GQ is about avoiding the latter problem by limiting access to highways to through-users. But then where do the local users go? That aspect was underplayed in the rush to design and build the highways, as the litigations and protests against exclusion and lack of cross-overs indicate. Today, some well-built highways are being dug up again to make way for underpasses! In some of them, tolls continue.
A road, whose service level over half its stretch is 1.5 and the remaining half is 0.5, gives an overall service level which is 25% below that of a road with a uniform service level of 1. This is simple enough to understand, since service levels are related to the time taken on roads, even though the distance weighted average of service levels is still 1.
Take another example. A 100-km stretch of road, wherein the service level or speed has fallen over a 10-km patch (due to congestion, bottleneck or poor surface quality), to 10% of the value elsewhere on the road, say 1, has a weighted average service quality that is 48% below that of the road with the same patch brought back to the service level of the rest of the road. In other words, a 10% deterioration of this kind reduces 48% of the value!
This is what makes tolling in India onerous. The problem is not the rate per se but the fact that interruptions and stretches of constrained movement greatly reduce consumer surplus or values. The resistance to this kind of tolling is not shrill as yet because consumers still remember the earlier potholed roads. But tolling with such shoddy patches and interruptions is quite unfair to the consumer.
This also underlies the importance of maintenance, and hence of contract forms that include maintenance. Indeed, the GQ and NHAI’s contribution is really in bringing maintenance to the fore through maintenance-linked construction contracts. But this is not enough. More BOTs, where revenues emerge from tolls and private finance initiatives (PFIs), where annuities are linked to traffic (shadow tolls), is the way to go.
Currently, these forms are not in wide use. The relevance of shadow tolls is most important to see where overall traffic may not have volumes and benefits to justify tolling. In all of these, it is also important to specify lane availability-based factors that modify payments based on tolls or traffic.
Can construction be more user-friendly? Construction contractors in India seem to work with the intention of maximising nuisance to users and neighbours. (Metro Rail in Delhi is a welcome change, but then Delhi is where our rulers live). With no regulation, and non-recognition of the problem, especially in public projects, the current state of affairs is not surprising. Even a modicum of rules and some key measures to ensure safety should considerably reduce the pain of construction on national highways. These need not add a paisa to the cost. But in a system where the first hesitant steps to recognising the consumer are only now being taken, this is like asking for the moon. Road users today or in the near future would have little choice but to get used to these horrendous conditions and grave threats to their safety.
Integrating highways with regional development and town development is required to unlock the full potential of ambitious highway upgradation programmes. This would mean a rational number of exit points that take into account the density of population of the area through which the expressway passes. And, more importantly, the necessary provision of parallel service roads. That would add value to land in a thick-corridor development around the expressways, pull along urbanisation in radials (more functional) rather than in circular (dysfunctional) sprawls that we notice around large cities.
That would also mean that the benefits would be much larger, with an incomparably larger population being affected for the better. Health and life expectancy would gain, since now all areas within a 40-km distance from any of the national highways would be able to reach proper hospitals in a reasonable time. The other economic connectivity benefits would, of course, be immense.