Planned expansion of the Nairobi-Mombasa road into a six-lane super-highway is expected to begin in the next couple of months with the invitation of bids for the project.
Transport and Infrastructure Secretary James Macharia said the government planned to build the road through a Public Private Partnership (PPP), but fell short of indicating whether it will be Kenya’s first pay-for-use highway as has been suggested.
Expansion of the two-lane road into a six- lane modern highway should offer relief to motorists on the busy highway that links Kenya’s capital Nairobi to the port of Mombasa.
“We have developed plans to do it (the expansion) in terms of having a PPP framework,” Mr Macharia said during a business luncheon organised by the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA). He said his ministry would soon make public the framework for the partnership, adding that the road would begin with a 12- lane highway on Mombasa island before narrowing into a six-lane highway to Nairobi.
The 485-kilometre highway is part of the Great North Road that moves more than 50 per cent of all goods traded in East Africa.
Nearly all of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan’s imported goods reach their destinations via this road, making it an important regional economic asset.
More than 90 per cent of all goods landing at Mombasa port are ferried by road, underlining the build-up of pressure on it as traffic volumes continue to grow.
The port handled 1.07 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo last year, up from 695,000 TEUs in 2010, signifying rising trade volumes in the region.
That growth has, however, not been matched with equal expansion of the infrastructure over the past 50 years. The Nairobi-Mombasa road has, for instance, remained a single-carriageway despite the huge increase in the number of private cars, buses and trucks transporting cargo.
The narrow highway has sometimes suffered painful gridlocks lasting for days and deadly accidents, mainly from head-on collisions.
Mr Macharia said expansion of the road, together with the ongoing construction of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), are part of a plan to create an integrated transport system for the port.
“The port cannot be seen in isolation – it should be seen as an integral part of infrastructure development,” he said.
Mr Macharia did not indicate what kind of PPP model would be used to build the road, but the government has in recent years flirted with the idea of introducing toll roads.
Another possible model is the annuity programme that the State has already introduced to develop other roads.
The toll model would involve converting the current taxpayer funded road into a quasi-public highway where motorists would pay for use.
But that would require the building of separate toll free roads to avoid legal challenges that come with forcing everyone to move on the toll road.
It has been successfully argued in many jurisdictions that introducing tolls on major roads without providing viable toll-free alternatives amounts to a breach of citizens’ right to free movement.
Under the annuity financing model, contractors access government guaranteed loans from banks to enabling them to design, build and maintain the roads. The Treasury then pays the loans in equal instalments (annuity) over a period of time, starting from the time of completion.
The Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA) early last month indicated that it was in talks with the American Export-Import bank to fund the project as a PPP.
“Our target is to complete the whole stretch by 2022,” KeNHA director-general Peter Mundinia said during an Infrastructure summit at State House, Nairobi in August.
Plans for the expansion of the road kicked off in February 2015 when the government hired consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct a feasibility study on the commercial and technical viability of the project.
It is expected that the Mombasa-Nairobi section of the SGR, expected to be ready by June 2017, will take a huge chunk of cargo and passenger traffic out of the highway.
Expansion of the road should see the highway regain some of its competitiveness offering transporters a choice between road and railway.
Besides the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, the government also plans to expand the 157km Nairobi-Nakuru highway into a dual carriage status under a PPP model to improve the flow of traffic to Western Kenya and beyond.