PM Modi inaugurated Bengaluru-Mysuru ‘Expressway’ in March, NHAI now says it’s a ‘Highway’

The increasing number of accident deaths on the 119-km stretch prompted authorities to impose speed restrictions.

ByBellie Thomas

Published Aug 04, 2023 | 11:00 PM Updated Aug 05, 2023 | 7:51 PM

Modi inaugurating the Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway on March 12th with the then CM Basavaraj Bommai. Union Transport minister Nitin Gadkari and MP Mysuru-Kodagu Pratap Simha are also present

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) on Thursday, 3 August, said the much-hyped Bengaluru-Mysuru “Expressway”, opened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was only a “Highway”.

The deemed downgrade comes at a time the road has claimed more than 120 lives in just a few months.

The prime minister inaugurated the multi-lane road in Mandya on 12 March, ahead of the Karnataka Assembly election, calling it an expressway — and a shining example of the “double-engine” development possible if the governments at the Centre and the state are run by the same party.

The expressway was meant to allow vehicles to speed at 120 Kmph, but after a series of fatal accidents, the Karnataka police imposed a speed limit of 100 kmph, prompting citizens to raise questions on speed restrictions on an expressway.

As if to respond to those questions, the NHAI has now deemed it a highway, instead.

The “demotion” has left Pratap Simha, the BJP member representing the Mysuru-Kodagu constituency in the Lok Sabha, fuming. He had taken the initiative to get the now-downgraded highway inaugurated before the 10 May Assembly elections. He blamed motorists’ lack of traffic discipline for the accidents.

Blame it on speed!

“We designed the expressway to enable vehicles to travel at 120 Kmph. But the ‘senseless’ and ‘reckless’ drivers were driving their hatchbacks at 130-140 kmph, causing accidents,” he did not hide his anger.

Prime Minister Modi dedicating the 'Expressway' to the nation on 12 March. (CMO)

Prime Minister Modi dedicating the ‘Expressway’ to the nation on 12 March. (CMO)

“This is an expressway, not a racing track. We had to impose speed restrictions and bring down the maximum speed limit to 100 kmph from 120 kmph. A person who has a ₹5 lakh hatchback drives as if it is a ₹50 lakh SUV,” he told South First.

“Certainly, accidents would occur. How can a driver control his hatchback if it is recklessly driven at 130-140 kmph,” the MP asked.

Simha, currently preparing a draft representation, said the police have been directed to book hatchbacks speeding over 100 Kmph and allow other cars, such as sedans and SUVs, to travel at 120 kmph.

He further clarified that there is not much difference between a highway and an expressway other than the speed limit. Simha lambasted Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar, Social Welfare Minister HC Mahadevappa and MP Sumalatha Ambareesh for terming the expressway unscientific.

“Are they educationally or technically qualified to declare it unscientific,” Simha fumed.

Mobility experts, however, are not amused. They felt the “degradation” exposed the NHAI’s lack of foresight.

“These are ad-hoc changes and they do not show them (NHAI) in good light The whole series of steps initiated does not seem to be a part of a well-thought-out strategy and competent execution,” urban mobility expert Ashwin Mahesh told South First.

Also read: Bengaluru-Chennai expressway to be ready by March 2024

Political chest-thumping

While inaugurating the ₹9,000-crore National Highway-275, Modi tweeted: “From Mandya, tomorrow, 12th March, the Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway would be dedicated to the nation. The foundation stone for the Mysuru-Kushalnagar highway would also be laid. These projects will boost connectivity and socio-economic growth.”

The Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari also termed it an expressway:  “The construction of the #Bengaluru_Mysuru_Expressway, which encompasses a portion of NH-275, also entails the development of four rail over-bridges, nine significant bridges, 40 minor bridges, and 89 underpasses and overpasses.”

When South First spoke to the NHAI Regional officer Vivek Jaiswal, he said that the NHAI in its toll notification had termed it as highway and not expressway.

When questioned about the Prime Minster, the Union Transport Minister, and others referring it to as an Expressway, Jaiswal disconnected the call.

Differentiating between an expressway and highway, the NHAI termed the upgraded Bengaluru-Mysuru road an access-controlled national highway with a speed limit of 100 kmph and not an expressway where the maximum permissible speed is 120 kmph. “Our notifications clearly state that it is an access-controlled highway and not an expressway,” the Times of India had reported.

Video: Farmers block Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway near Mandya

Grim reality

The figures may vary, but they paint the grim reality of death lurking on the 119-km express highway that cuts short the travel time between the two cities by 90 minutes.

Replying to Karnataka MPs Sumalatha Ambareesh and Prajwal Revanna in the Lok Sabha, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari said that around 121 people had lost their lives in about 398 accidents on the expressway since 1 January.

Motorists had been using the road much before it was inaugurated in March.

As many as 59 people were killed on the stretch between Bengaluru and Maddur, and 62 others on the Maddur-Mysuru stretch, the minister said on 28 July.

The Karnataka police, however, presented different figures. Police records put the number of deaths at 132 — 28 in June alone.

Replying to a question on safety, Gadkari said signboards have been installed at regular intervals as per the Indian Road Congress, and four patrol vehicles, two for each stretch — Bengaluru to Maddur, and Maddur to Mysuru — have been pressed into service.

Surveillance cameras and overhead variable message signboards have been installed, and two- and three-wheelers, along with slow-moving vehicles like tractors and other non-motorised vehicles have been banned on the expressway.

The ban came into effect on Tuesday, 1 August.

A road safety committee inspected the expressway for three days. The local police are enforcing speed restrictions with the help of interceptors, and four ambulances with basic life-support systems and paramedical staff have been deployed and stationed on the two stretches, the minister said.

However, as accidents continued, the state police recently began a trial of Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled cameras to crack down on speeding vehicles. Their efforts paid off. The number of deaths came down to eight in July, claimed Additional Director General of Police (Traffic & Road Safety) Alok Kumar. He called the road a highway.

Also read: Toll on new road cannot be hiked for 9 months, say transporters

Experts find design flaws 

CM Siddaramaiah with NHAI officials in Mandya on Saturday

CM Siddaramaiah with NHAI officials in Mandya on Saturday. (Supplied)

Road safety experts pointed to several flaws in the expressway — and why they were causing accidents. The expressway has been built above the old highway, which has now become the service road. At several places, service roads were missing since both highways merged on the plains.

“The expressway passes above towns like Bidadi, Ramanagara, Channapatna, Maddur, Mandya, and Srirangapatina, and when it comes down the ramp, it merges with the old highway. Service roads are not constructed on such stretches,” urban mobility expert Mahesh said. He found fault with the road’s design since the service roads had not been completed.

He said that, ideally, the express highway had to be built with two more extra lanes that could accommodate slow-moving vehicles like two-wheelers and three-wheelers, considering the large number of people who were using such vehicles.

“I have seen heavy vehicles like trucks moving at 40 to 60 kmph. Some bikers ride responsibly at high speeds. So there is no point in banning two-wheelers,” Mahesh said.

Also read: Rain derails Karnataka ‘double-engine’ claims again

Hard medians: Disaster in waiting

Another flaw that Mahesh pointed out was the hard median separating the opposite lanes.

“Usually, the right extreme lane is meant for fast-moving vehicles and there should not be a hard median. If the driver loses control of the vehicle, it could hit the hard median and land on the opposite track, causing accidents,” he said.

CM Siddaramaiah with NHAI officials in Mandya on Saturday

CM Siddaramaiah held talks with NHAI officials in Mandya on Saturday. (Supplied)

The third defect he pointed out was the lanes from towns below merging with the highway. “They should run parallel for at least 50 metres before merging with the highway. But this is not the case on the Bengaluru-Mysuru Express Highway,” he added.

The NHAI has conventional ways of designing and constructing highways. Its projects would seem error-free initially as it expects only a certain traffic volume.

“For example, it constructed a highway project, which the authority says can hold 1,000 vehicles. If the volume and density of vehicles are 10 to 20, they make through without incidents. But as the volume/density increases, then the errors are magnified and the project’s flaws show up,” Mahesh explained.

He said that NHAI does not consult experts or local elected representatives. Its job is to develop the infrastructure, maintain it, and leave it to the people.” They cannot consider it as their property nor could construct and alter it as the authority wishes,” he added.

Mahesh said the government had acquired around 11,000 acres for the Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises Road (NICE). The project was designed as arcs around Bengaluru and Mysuru, with bypasses in between them. “What happened to the acquired land when the express highway project was built over the old Bengaluru-Mysuru highway,” he asked.

Also read: Metro rushed so PM could open Whitefield-KR Puram section

Inadequate design standards

Road Safety Expert MN Srihari, who had travelled more than half a dozen times on the express highway, told South First that he found inadequate design standards on certain stretches.

“An express highway is meant for high-speed vehicles. The road design should be planned, designed, constructed, and maintained in such a way that the vehicles ply seamlessly and safely. The highway design should also be audited extensively,” he said.

“Field testing should also be carried out multiple times on the entire stretch of the highway in either direction to ascertain the maximum speed that a vehicle could travel on a particular stretch. One of the important factors is visibility, both during the day and night. The road design should also take care of curvatures and slopes,” he said.

“There should be lay-bys but I did not find any on the Bengaluru-Mysuru Express Highway. The express highway is barricaded when it comes down to the plains but people are crossing them and trespassing into the highway,” he highlighted a sure recipe for disaster.

“Surveillance cameras and speed detectors are inadequate and there should be clear road markings: Kerb markings, pavement edge markings, and these markings need to be made with heated thermoplastic paint mixed with glass beads for retroreflection. Drainage is also important. There should not be stagnant water on the highway,” Srihari said.

He felt addressing the structural flaws, developing facilities for stress-free driving such as toilets and lay-bys every 10 to 15 km, and motorists adhering to traffic rules could reduce accidents and casualties.

Siddaramaiah visits corridor

A day after Gadkari made the statement in the Lok Sabha, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah visited the corridor for a review. He considered the measures taken to prevent accidents and discussed with officials about the further plans for the express highway.

The chief minister asserted that the government would take up additional works on the express highway at a cost of ₹158.82 crore and they would commence by November. According to the Chief Minister’s Office, the amount would be sanctioned soon to ensure the works began by November.

Speaking to reporters, the chief minister said the accidents have come down. “Compared to June, the number of accidents has come down in July. There were around 20 accidents in June, but only five in July. If speed detectors are installed every 10 km, accidents can be reduced,” Siddaramaiah opined.

On the collection of tolls without completing the entire project, the chief minister said the government had nothing to do with it since NHAI has been collecting the user fee.