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How to solve the Dubai-Sharjah congestion dilemma

When the UAE implements its framework for public-private partnerships, as announced earlier this month, there will be a list of potential projects up for grabs. But none is more urgent than the commuter corridor between Dubai and Sharjah.

Conspicuously neglected, Al Ittihad Road is arguably the worst bottleneck in the country, if not the region. The three-lane highway is guaranteed to turn into a car park — a slow moving one at best — every weekday afternoon.

The daily traffic jams cost commuters hours of lost time every week, while the cost to business and the economy would no doubt tally into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Despite recent additions, such as slip roads and roundabouts that are supposed to ease traffic flow to other routes connecting the emirates, traffic remains backed up. It is enough to make anyone dread travelling the route during particular times of the day.

Why commuters’ persistent complaining about the issue has not been adequately addressed is a mystery, particularly while other state-of-the-art transport options, including a yet-to-be-proven Hyperloop system, are being pursued.

Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) revealed in February last year that congestion on its roads cost the economy $790m in wasted fuel and time in 2013. The population of Dubai has since grown by about 300,000 people, or 10 percent, and is expected to add another 1 million people by 2020, adding additional pressure on the already strained road network.

While the Dubai-Sharjah road is only a few kilometres of the total road network, it is arguably the most congested by a long shot, and one of the most important commuter corridors, linking residents, workers and trade between both emirates.

Unfortunately, no one has analysed — at least publicly — the positive impact improving efficiency on this strip would cost, but it is easy to determine in general. Property prices in Sharjah would inevitably go up — tens of thousands of people who work in Dubai opt to live across the border where rent can be half the cost.

Reducing fuel waste would not only have an economic impact (the government still heavily subsidises petrol) but also speed up the UAE’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The benefits to individual commuters — more time with their family or to play sport or to spend at restaurants and other leisure activities — also would be immeasurable. It would be a sure-fire boost to Dubai’s efforts to become the world’s ‘happiest city’.

Widening the road could significantly alleviate congestion, but this is a stop-gap measure and could have the adverse effect of encouraging more people to drive. The best option is to extend the Dubai Metro into the centre of Sharjah.

The recently announced Route 2020 extension project linking Jebel Ali to the World Expo site is billed to cost $2.5bn, including 15km of new track and 50 new trains (15 of which would be used for the new section). The RTA has not publicly broken down the cost of the extension and required trains alone, but on a conservative calculation, extending the metro to Sharjah would cost less than $2bn.

Such a deal would require both emirates’ agreement, and Dubai could argue that given almost all of the extension would be within Sharjah, that emirate should stump up the majority of the cost. Does Sharjah have the funds or see the value in such a proposition? Perhaps not, which may be why the link does not yet exist. Thus, this is a perfect case for the federal government to step in. The UAE government could divert some of the money saved from the stalled heavy railway network or alternatively, and perhaps this is the smartest route, the project could go out to tender as a public-private partnership (PPP).

The catch is that few rail public transport systems have ever made a profit. To make such a project financially attractive to the private sector, ticket prices would likely be two, three, even four times higher than those on the rest of the Dubai Metro network.

Still, there is an opportunity for a private investor to study feasible solutions to one of the most pressing concerns in the UAE.

 

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