The current heavy rains, expected to last till December 2017, are heavily pelting the road network, causing mudslides, embankment washouts, pavement submergence, bridge/culvert failures and other flood-related damages.
Connectivity in many areas, especially in the mountainous Elgon/Ruwenzori slopes, is impaired adversely, disrupting travel plans. It is also disrupting planned road maintenance works for which Uganda Road Fund (URF) last month released Shs 75bn to its maintenance implementing agencies to execute up to December 2017.
The rains expose and exacerbate latent weaknesses in the network especially those due to backlog of maintenance, which lately has depressed network performance indicators thus: average travel time has peaked at 2.02 min/km, up from 1.83min/km in 2015; motorized traffic is a 8,500 million veh-km from 3,755 million veh-km in 2003 for a non-expanding asset; loss to backlog is possibly 30 per cent of road space.
Congestion in Kampala city has increased journey time from 2.4 min/km in 2014 to 2.9 min/km today; road fatalities still hoover around 3,500 persons per year, one of the highest in Africa.
Exaggerated unit cost of infrastructure including roads causes a haemorrhage of about $300m per year through under-pricing of utilities and mismanagement of projects.
The 2016 Commission of Inquiry into Uganda National Roads Authority reported value loss of up to Shs 4 trillion in seven years on account of abuse of resources.
Not surprisingly, road user satisfaction survey (RUSS) results for 2016 released by Uganda Road Fund (URF) last July revealed a marked decline in satisfaction level, from 51.7 per cent in 2015 to 45 per cent in 2016, attributed to narrow, dusty, accident-prone, congested roads.
And yet massive investment of up to $4 billion in road infrastructure by the government has occurred since 1986, in three distinct waves: $500m invested in the period 1986-1996 to reclaim and render maintainable hitherto “lost roads”; $1.5bn under first Road Sector Development Program (RSDP) in the period 1996-2006 to upgrade major corridors and reform road management, financing and institutions; and the $2.28bn RSDP2 from 2006 to date to operationalize new institutions notably UNRA and URF, increase paved roads to nearly 4,500km from 1,800km in 1992.
Lately, up to $50m per year is being invested in urban roads including in Kampala, municipalities and town councils.
Recent reinvigoration of force accounts approach to road maintenance to cut losses associated with tendered works in districts has seen procurement of $153m worth of road equipment.
Technological, economic and demographic factors are conspiring to dampen the impact of these interventions into the condition of the network, hence need for a rethink of modernization schemes to address capacity constraints of the network and restore public confidence in the asset.
Wider roads, albeit costly due to expensive land acquisition, are needed to accommodate the 8,500 million veh-km annually plying our roads, particularly to segregate traffic, enhance safety and reduce journey times.
The urban population is increasing at 5.43 per cent per annum and expected to grow from six million people in 2013 to over 20 million people in 2040.
This will require additional road space with mass rapid transport system on pothole-free, well-signalized urban networks to reduce congestion.
The futuristic plan announced by UNRA recently to construct up to four expressways radiating from Kampala (Jinja, Nakasero-Northern Bypass, Kampala Outer Beltway and Kampala-Busunju-Hoima) in addition to that to Entebbe (nearing completion) is a step in the right direction in this respect. Dust and mud slurry in urban areas must be eliminated through purposeful paving of roads and open spaces.
A resilient network capable of withstanding elemental forces will require stronger pavements, long-span high-capacity bridges, elevated roads and interchanges, underground road/rail network in Kampala and other aspects of modernization.
The big seven bridges: Karuma, Pakwach, Jinja, Awoja, Katonga, Katunguru and Manafa are so vital to national life that they must be upgraded to higher signature forms and parallel alternatives established (as is happening at Jinja) to minimise losses to the national economy from their sudden collapse.
From an engineering perspective, the Luzira-City Square-Wandegeya-Bwaise corridor in Kampala city is ripe for an underground tunnel transportation system. Recent advances in tunnelling technology have reduced the cost and make it a feasible option for Uganda at some point.
Road modernization implies upgrading roads to suit new advances in motor vehicle technology as well, notably electrical and autonomous vehicles, which are now becoming reality in many countries.
Technology is advancing to place roads as an important source of electricity from heat trapped in black tar surfacing material and from mechanical movement of vehicles.
This could be an important energy source for creating smart junctions as well as charging electric car batteries, leave alone extra power to the national grid. Modernization must prepare roads for these technologically driven functions.
The author is the executive director Uganda Road Fund and chairman, Engineers’ Registration Board.