Eastern Freeway is set for commissioning. A look at what the project will mean, and its journey of three decades
Mumbai’s Eastern Freeway, at 16.8 km described as the country’s longest within a city, is counting the days before it is thrown open to the public. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) is rushing whatever work remains as it expects the freeway, save the last segment, to be commissioned “anytime”, marking the culmination of an idea conceived three decades ago.
A combination of road sections over, under and on level ground, the signal-free, toll-free freeway promises a straight ride from the eastern suburbs to south Mumbai in 25 minutes. It will connect to a number of roads now suffering from congestion. Once the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link from Sewri to Nhava and an elevated road from Worli to Sewri are in place, the MMRDA will connect these too to the freeway so that traffic can be contiguous between the south, the western and eastern suburbs and Navi Mumbai.
“The Eastern Freeway will not be any city road. It will be an evacuation road,” says Ashwini Bhide, additional metropolitan commissioner, MMRDA.
“We will need a few days to finish this work and expect it to be commissioned for traffic anytime,” she adds. Ahead of the inauguration by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, engineers are merging ramps with the existing road, building a brick wall along a 400-metre stretch to reduce disturbance to housing colonies, and installing a foot over-bridge for residents.
The freeway has three segments, and the immediate launch will be of the southernmost, the longest, and parts of the second. The first stretch is a 9.3-km elevated, four-lane road from Orange Gate on P D’Mello Road to Anik, near Wadala. This segment will be the second-longest elevated road in India, after Hyderabad’s airport connector.
The second segment will be 5 km from Anik to Panjarpol, near Chembur, mostly a road at grade but also including twin tunnels 500 and 550 metres long. Four of this section’s eight lanes will be opened within a week, with the rest of the project likely to be commissioned by the end of the year. The third stretch is a 2.5-km elevated road from Panjarpol to Ghatkopar.
Originally, the three segments had been conceived as separate projects, with only the Orange Gate-Anik section counted as the Eastern Freeway. Once construction started, the MMRDA decided to merge the three projects.
Two-wheelers will likely be barred from using the freeway, but public buses will be allowed to use it.
FROM IDEA TO REALITY
In 1983, the Central Road Research Institute had recommended a transport improvement plan in the growing city. Among various projects, it recommended an eastern freeway as well as a western freeway for commuters in those suburbs.
“However, it was not looked at seriously until about 2003. By then, work on the Bandra Worli Sea Link, which was part of the Western Freeway, had started. Traffic on the eastern side was increasing, so we brought the Eastern Freeway back on the drawing board,” says D P Deshmukh, superintending engineer with the MMRDA.
Unlike the Metro or the monorail, the Eastern Freeway was not publicised for a long time. This was because during the first few years of its execution, the general attitude was that there were so many hurdles that the target seemed unlikely.
After the MMRDA sent a proposal to the Centre seeking funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, the project was sanctioned funds up to 35 per cent of its cost. Bids were called in 2007; construction started in January 2008.
There were some hurdles until 2009, with the MMRDA struggling to get the right of way, or ownership of land along the alignment. Construction of the second segment, the Anik-Panjarpol link road, had begun in 2004 itself but progress was slow as the MMRDA had to negotiate with various groups to shift more than 5,000 structures, most of them encroachments.
Work on the third segment, the Panjarpol-Ghatkopar link road, started in August 2009, and the MMRDA was able to attain complete right of way only earlier this month.
The original cost of the three segments put together was Rs 847 crore. It has now swelled to Rs 1,250 crore.
These will be the country’s first transport tunnels located within an urban sprawl. Nine metres high and 18 wide, they required 1,200 tonnes of steel. The debris, which piled up to 75,000 cubic metres, was used for the construction of the Anik-Panjarpol link road. The tunnels, with four lanes each, were built at Rs 80 crore.
For three years, more than 200 labourers worked on the tunels, drilling and blasting through rock till the tunnels found daylight. The authorities had initially expected to complete the tunnels within 18 months, but land acquisition and geological issues delayed it. There were about 1,500 encroachments on the mountains where the tunnels had to be blasted.
The rock prove weaker than expected, presenting another challenge. After starting construction, engineers came across a kind of rock that softens when it comes in contact with water. Not knowing how to deal with the stone, the MMRDA had to investigate before proceeding. Engineers used a process that stabilises excavations with anchor bolts, and applied a cement grout to the surface to counter the weak soil strata. In the end, the tunnels were given a concrete lining.
Along the way
Most engineers recall one night in 2011 when they launched a concrete slab over a bridge underneath which people wee living. This was at the century-old Victoria Bridge, covered with slums for as long as one can remember. Unsure about the strength of the bridge, engineers first propped it from the bottom before bringing the crane atop it to launch a segment overhead.
“We could not remove the encroachments as the land belonged to the Mumbai Port Trust and was not part of our right of way,” said Jaywant Dhane, executive engineer. “We launched the segment with people living and sleeping underneath. It was a task that required immense precision. Even a slight error would have been colossal.”
The MMRDA had to coordinate with more than 10 agencies, some for acquiring land, some for shifting underlying utilities, and some for general permission. These included the Mumbai Port Trust, customs, the salt pans commissioner, the environment department, the municipal corporation, the traffic police, BSNL, Hindustan Petroleoum, Bharat Petroleum, Indian Oil and Tata.
Part of the elevated freeway is on salt pan land near Mahul. Letters seeking clearance from the salt pans commissioner were sent around 2003; approval to take the project through the salt pans for about a kilometre came in 2011. “Taking possession of the salt pan land, struggling for it and ultimately establishing this missing link was, I would say, the most challenging task in the construction of the freeway,” Bhide said. When he gave approval, the commissioner asked the MMRDA to pay lease at six per cent of the ready reckoner rate for erecting a few pillars.
Two accidents arrested the pace of construction. In October 2011, an 80-mm bolt came off a crane being used to launch concrete segments, due to which the girder collapsed. In July 2012, a labourer was killed and seven were injured when segments of a launching truss came crashing down.