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The Mumbai-Pune expressway 

Jagdish Mahale is a speed fiend along the new Mumbai-Pune expressway. He requests his driver to take a backseat and takes charge of the steering wheel himself. Where else could the executive engineer of this highway drive at 120 km per hour and not be booked for speeding?

The team at Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), which includes chief engineer S S Momin and executive engineer Mahale, has even earned the admiration of its private sector collaborators in this venture. The Mumbai-Pune expressway is the most modern highway in Asia and will be complete by June 2001. At present, the stretch between Panvel and Adhoshi is open to traffic.

Motorists are also thrilled at the idea of doing what used to be a five-six hour journey on the national highway, within two hours on the new expressway. Regular travellers between Mumbai and Pune agree that the construction of the expressway was long overdue. And Mahale agrees. "After all, Mumbai is the commercial capital of India and Pune is fast growing into a major industrial and commercial centre. So the importance of a road-link between the two main cities of Maharashtra can only grow with time," he says.

So many aspects of the expressway make it seem nothing short of an engineering marvel. "There are no signals along the route and no blind curves. The total width of its six lanes is about 40.5 metres. One carriageway consists of two lanes, of which one leads to Pune and the other to Mumbai. The central median is a thick line of bushes, which not only reduces the impact of a collision, but also prevents the vehicle getting into the other lane, right into the traffic coming from the other side," explains Mahale. The ultra-modern machinery used in the expressway's construction has cost Rs 300 crore.

The MSRDC is proud of the five tunnels that are being constructed on the route. Four of these are complete. The expressway is dotted with these tunnels, which are four lanes wide and equipped with high-tech facilities for lighting, ventilation, fire-fighting, even communication and closed circuit television. Speed indicators, ambulances and police vehicles are on hand to prevent and address mishaps. Wayside hotels, petrol pumps and toilets will be set up, and fencing will be undertaken to prevent cattle straying onto the road. Subways are being provided for pedestrians at intervals of 300-500 metres.

A well-planned operation indeed, on the ecological aspect too. "Well, it's not like developers do not feel for the environment! Around 500 trees which got in the way of the expressway were uprooted and transplanted into pits dug at other locations along the route. We propose to plant an additional one lakh trees. We did our best to save all the trees we could," Mahale says. "We also created around 400-500 hectares of cultivable land. All the rich fertile soil that was cleared for the expressway was dumped on farmlands in the interior areas. The farmers themselves requested us to do this as it would help their crops, and we were only too happy to oblige. Otherwise, the disposal of all that soil would have been a problem!"The existing Mumbai-Pune national highway, much maligned for its traffic jams, potholed roads and high accident rate, has proved grossly inadequate to handle the dense traffic between the cities. About 400 people die each year in accidents that occur on this road.

"The traffic on any road is measured in terms of Passenger Car Units or PCUs," Mahale informs us. "The unit depends on the time the vehicle takes to move along the road. So a bus is equivalent to 3.6 PCU, whereas a bullock cart is 4.5 PCU. You need one lane for every 10,000 PCU." In 1997, the traffic on the Mumbai-Pune highway was 60,755 PCU and is expected to grow to 1,00,000 PCU by the year 2004. "This means that a 10 lane corridor would be required along this route," says Mahale.

The project took shape in 1990 when the Maharashtra government appointed RITES and Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick of the UK to carry out feasibility studies for the new expressway. In 1994, RITES submitted a report estimating the total cost of the Mumbai-Pune expressway to be Rs 1,146 crore. However, the project cost, including escalation and interest, is now expected to touch Rs 1,630 crore.

After that came the task of obtaining clearance from the ministry of environment and forests. With all the formalities in place by November 1997, the MSRDC went ahead with the construction of the new Mumbai-Pune expressway. Work was given out to four contractors in January 1998.

MSRDC will operate the expressway on a toll basis for the next 30 years. The rates range from Rs 80 for cars and Rs 135 for mini buses to Rs 190 for trucks and Rs 270 for buses. Heavy vehicles pay Rs 600. And yes, motorcyclists are not allowed for they tend to switch lanes more than drivers of other vehicles do!

Before the expressway is complete, small stretches of road have been opened to the public. And motorists, having tasted bliss, cannot wait for more.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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