The R150 million upgrade of the Western freeway into Durban is expected to be completed by the end of this month, two-and-a-half years after having started, in November 2005, Dawie Erasmus, the technical director of Vela VKE Consulting Engineers said at a branch meeting of the South African Institute of Civil Engineers, last week.

A joint venture between Vela VKE and Eyethu Engineers is responsible for the project design and the Group Five/National/Milling Techniques Joint Venture constructed the works for eThekwini Municipality Roads Provision.

The Group Five joint-venture company has subcontracted over 20 black economically empowerment companies in terms of the contract participation goals.

The project has been extended a number of times. The first phase widened the road from three lanes to four in each direction between Candella road and the Tollgate bridge, with localised fifth lanes on both carriageways linking the on and off lanes. Phase two extended the upgrade to Botanic Gardens road and included closing the ‘Hole in the Wall’ of the disused Berea Road south onramp, which had become a hideout and escape route for criminals.

The contract included construction of a concrete median barrier and widening the bridges over Brickfield and Waterfall roads.

“These widenings were undertaken under difficult restricted conditions and working around important utility services while accommodating traffic in the least disruptive manner,” Erasmus said.

“At Waterfall road, where the bridge needed widening, extensive shoring of unstable sand and boulder fill was required to ensure stability and prevent disruption to traffic on the Western freeway over the bridge.”

To provide for the additional fifth lane at Tollgate, the old retaining wall had to be demolished and a new one built.

“Lessons learnt on the project included the creep characteristic of recycled asphalt product, which is not recommended as a backfill material for reinforced earth-retaining structures,” Erasmus said.

The road surface has also been rehabilitated and the freeway width is now wall to wall.

“With extensive development adjacent to it, the freeway cannot be extended further,” he said. “If the traffic becomes too heavy for the road to cope with, drivers will have to find alternative routes into Durban.”

He dismissed the idea of a double-decker freeway into the city, saying it would be too expensive and would not necessarily be in balance with the capacity limitations of the feeder roads, but conceded that “with money anything is possible”.

Before the upgrade, the freeway was performing under congested conditions, with up to 6 000 vehicles an hour during peak times, despite the available three lanes in each direction.

“The additional lanes have relieved the congestion considerably,” said Erasmus. “The additional fifth lanes linking the on- and offramps have also had a significant impact on traffic flow and peak-hour capacity.”

A late entry into the project was the implementation of a dedicated public-transport lane on the right-hand-side fast lane under the guidance and direction of the eThekwini Transport Authority.

The lane has stirred up a lot of controversy, being a first in Durban. However, Erasmus said that public-transport lanes are “here to stay”, as they are a strategy to deal with limitations on transport infrastructure expansion.

“The lane has only been open for [a few] days and in time more public-transport vehicles will make use of the facility,” he said.

Erasmus said the decision about its location had been extensively researched by the eThekwini Transport Authority and it was believed to be in the best suited location on the Western freeway.

“We don’t expect all public transport to use it, as some taxis or buses will need to drop off or pick up passengers. However, it will benefit a large proportion of the public-transport, longer-distance operators heading for the bus and taxi ranks in the city. There is expected to be less congestion in the public-transport lane than in the other lanes, which will make it attractive for public-transport operators,” he said.

Nationally, public transport lanes are being implemented in the major cities, mostly in the right-hand-side fast lane to encourage ease of movement. Erasmus said the lane was unlikely to revert to normal use, even if it was not as fully used as the other lanes, as there was a “definite need and political will to improve and promote the use of public transport”.