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Boats to the rescue: Waterways to help decongest Mumbai’s packed roads & locals

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Roll-on-roll-off and passenger-only ferry services likely soon, could cut travel time by 80 per cent.

Mumbai: Thirty-five years after the Maharashtra government first mooted the idea of tapping Mumbai’s waterways for public transportation, the concept looks likely to finally take off, albeit in a small way initially.

The Maharashtra government plans to operationalise a roll-on-roll-off ferry service that will allow passengers to carry their cars on board from Mandwa, near Alibaug, to Ferry Wharf in south Mumbai, potentially cutting the commute time by 80 per cent, from 3.5 hours to 45 minutes.

Mandwa falls in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, the larger urban agglomeration around Mumbai (like Delhi’s national capital region), spread over 4,355 sq km with a population of more than 20 million. It includes the satellite towns of Greater Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan-Dombivali, Navi Mumbai, Ulhasnagar, Bhiwandi-Nizamapur, Vasai-Virar and Mira-Bhayandar.

The public transportation system for the region is overburdened, and the linkages weak between many areas. The existing suburban railway network carries 75 lakh passengers daily, 2.6 times its capacity.

The waterway service, which will run along Mumbai’s eastern coast, is likely to be commissioned in about a month.

While ferries do currently operate between the Gateway of India and Mandwa, the service is shut during the monsoon, and there is no provision for the transportation of cars. Officials say they hope to employ boats of a superior quality, and more comfortable, under the new project.

Part of a bigger initiative

The Mumbai-Mandwa link is part of a clutch of projects the Devendra Fadnavis-led state government has planned to use the region’s inland waterways for public transportation.

“The Mumbai-Mandwa route is more feasible for transportation of cars from one place to another, so that villages around Mandwa and Alibaug can also use it. But the rest of the routes that are being worked on are all about helping people move from one place to another,” said Manoj Saunik, principal secretary, transport.

“It is a small beginning, but the transportation systems in the city are so stressed that any beginning, any new efficient transportation system that we can provide people, is good news,” he added.

The most obvious benefit of the link would be the commute time. Mandwa and Mumbai are 105 km apart by road, and it currently takes 3.5 hours to cover. However, it is also expected to decongest the Mumbai-Goa highway and spur development in Alibaug tehsil.

“The project currently will have just a five per cent impact on the current traffic. But opening up the waterways is a welcome move. By cutting the commute, it will help save fuel and reduce pollution,” A.V. Shenoy, a Mumbai-based transportation expert, said.

The roots of the idea

In 1983, an expert group from the state home department mooted the idea of tapping the sea surrounding Mumbai for public transport. Their report, titled ‘Development of Waterways around Bombay Harbour for Commuter Traffic’, was followed by a number of studies on the same lines.

The state government eventually took up a concrete plan to implement a roll-on-roll-off and passenger transport system along Mumbai’s eastern coast in 2007-08.

At the time, the project was much larger in scope and entailed nearly three times the expenditure expected on the current venture.

Between then and 2014, the project was constantly shuttled between two government agencies — the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) — without much progress.

It had several false starts, failing to take off on account of the high cost and concerns over the viability of such an expansive project.

In 2015, CM Fadnavis handed over the remit to the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB), a government agency tasked with the administration of ports and harbours.

What it will look like

In its current form, the service will have one berthing terminal each at Ferry Wharf and Mandwa, at a total cost of about Rs 150 crore. The plan involves one more terminal en route at Nerul in Navi Mumbai, the construction of which is under way and is likely to take over a year to complete.

When the MSRDC was in charge of the project, the plan was to have four berths for the roll-on-roll-off service and eight for passenger ferries at Ferry Wharf and Nerul. Mandwa was to have two berths for the roll-on-roll-off service and three for passenger ferries.

An engineer working on the project said, “Almost 95 per cent of the civil infrastructure work on the Mumbai jetty and 85 per cent on the Mandwa jetty is complete. The private operator who will run the service will procure the boats.”

Coast to coast

Like the eastern coast, there was a plan for a passenger water transportation system on the western coast as well, connecting the far-west suburb of Borivali to Nariman Point in South Mumbai. However, this project too has seen several failed rounds of tendering due to concerns over its viability as the sea on the western side is much choppier, which would make it difficult to run the service all year round.

Saunik, the principal secretary for transport, said, “The west coast project is still not being found to be technically feasible. It will have to be out of operations for the four monsoon months.”

“One aspect is that it might be financially difficult for the operator to bring expensive equipment that is going to be non-functional for four months. But more importantly, it will be very difficult to get regular commuters on a system that won’t function during the rains,” he added, “Everyone likes to follow a routine pattern of commuting to work.”

On the agenda of the satellites

The Thane and Navi Mumbai civic bodies, too, are working on projects using inland waterways.

The Thane Municipal Corporation recently received the Union government’s in-principle approval to start work on an inland waterways project across creeks to connect Thane to Vasai and Kalyan, with nine stops along the way.

The civic body is also working on a detailed project report for a similar link between Thane and the Gateway of India, Panvel, and the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Navi Mumbai.

The Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC), meanwhile, is trying to establish an all-weather water transport link between Belapur in Navi Mumbai and Ferry Wharf in South Mumbai. If the plan is successful, it will enable commuters to reach South Mumbai from Belapur in about 20 minutes on a smooth hovercraft as against the 40-minute ride in a packed train or an hour’s drive.

NMMC N. Ramaswamy said, “There are a lot of daily commuters between Navi Mumbai and Mumbai and a clean and efficient option to reach their destination in 20-30 minutes will be very popular.”

The MMB has issued an expression of interest to scout for an operator for such a hovercraft service. Ramaswamy said if the efforts failed, the NMMC and the MMB would consider forming a joint venture and running the operations themselves.

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