A nation’s development is often gauged by the state of its road infrastructure. Recognising this, the government has been taking a series of reforms and measures over the years to give a fillip to road development and address legacy issues. The result has been higher construction and award activity, accelerated expressway development and a seamless travel experience. Industry leaders talk about the road sector’s growth and performance, the key challenges, emerging trends and future needs…
How has the road sector evolved over the past few years?
It all started in the 1990s when major efforts were planned and conceptualised to modernise the country’s road infrastructure. In 1998, the National Highways Development Project was launched, which included the Golden Quadrilateral project – a 5,846 km long corridor connecting the four major cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata; as well as the North-South and East-West corridor projects, comprising 7,142 km of national highways connecting four extreme points of the country – from Srinagar in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, and Silchar in the east to Porbandar in the west.
A key milestone was the launch of the ambitious Bharatmala Pariyojana in 2015, aimed at developing 24,800 km of highways across the country under Phase I. It envisages a corridor-based approach instead of the existing package-based approach which has, in many cases, resulted in skewed development. This corridor-based approach aims to improve connectivity, reduce travel time and boost economic growth by bridging critical infrastructure gaps through the development of inter-corridors, feeder routes, ring roads/bypasses, coastal and port connectivity roads, expressways, elevated corridors and multimodal logistics parks. The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana was yet another noteworthy project, which focused on providing all-weather road connectivity to rural areas, to ensure that remote and underdeveloped regions are connected to mainstream economic activities.
The road sector has undergone significant transformations in recent years owing to rapid urbanisation, technological advancements and the increasing demand for sustainable transportation networks. The key milestones include infrastructure development, and technological advancements such as the adoption of intelligent transportation systems and sustainable construction practices. These advancements have improved road safety, reduced congestion and enhanced overall transportation efficiency. In addition, sustainable practices, such as reclaimed asphalt and recycled aggregates, have been adopted to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint. Road safety measures have been implemented to reduce accidents and fatalities, with stricter traffic regulations, speed cameras, driver education campaigns and advancements in vehicle safety technologies.
To fund and deliver road infrastructure projects, public-private partnerships are being promoted, facilitating timely completion, improved project efficiency, and long-term operations and maintenance (O&M) of road infrastructure. Further, infrastructure investment trusts (InvITs) have had a positive impact on infrastructure development. InvITs offer innovative financing mechanisms for investors to participate in projects. The sector has witnessed significant milestones, including the construction of the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway, Ganga Expressway, Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi Expressway, Bengaluru-Chennai Expressway, Delhi-Amritsar-Katra Expressway and Kanpur-Lucknow Expressway.
The roads and highways sector has made substantial progress in awarding and construction activity. There has been greater advancement in the implementation of centrally sponsored projects in contrast to state-level projects. During the decade, both awarding and construction activities has witnessed steep growth. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has set an ambitious construction and awarding target of 14,000 km and 12,000 km respectively for 2023-24. The sector has achieved significant milestones, including the development of numerous greenfield expressways at both the central and state levels, an increased pace of construction through the accelerated mechanisation of construction operations and successful implementation of hybrid annuity model (HAM)-based highway projects, thus relieving developers of traffic revenue risks.
On the funding front, the introduction of toll-operate-transfer (TOT) project bundles as part of the monetisation of already operational infrastructure assets and the formation of special purpose vehicles for securing bank funding for the development of projects by authorities such as the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation have been a few notable initiatives.
Recent years have seen increased interest from foreign investors, including pension funds, in acquiring operational road assets. This interest is witnessed through their active participation in NHAI’s TOT bundles and the acquisition of several operational projects from road developers. External funding helps developers address liquidity needs, unlock equity for reinvestment and reduce the strain on their balance sheets. Consequently, this enables them to participate more actively in projects on various funding models such as HAM and build-operate-transfer (toll), etc. Marking another remarkable milestone, SEBI notified the Infrastructure Investment Trusts Regulations in September 2014, facilitating investment in the infrastructure sector. The road sector has been the distinguished beneficiary of this investment framework, as the majority of the established InvITs are from the highways segment. NHAI itself also successfully launched its own InVIT, aptly naming it National Highways Infra Trust. The sector has also demonstrated remarkable resilience against massive setbacks due to Covid-19.
What are the biggest challenges that the road sector faces today?
Acquiring land for road projects, especially in densely populated areas, can be a lengthy and complicated process. Further, greenfield projects may have environmental impacts such as deforestation, habitat disruption and increase in pollution. The lack of adequate funding for road projects remains a challenge. While public funds are often insufficient for large-scale projects, private sector participation is hindered by issues such as land acquisition hurdles, regulatory complexities and uncertainties in revenue generation. Insufficient road safety measures, lax enforcement of traffic rules and inadequate driver education contribute to a high rate of road accidents and fatalities. However, in a serious attempt to make road travel safe, a significant number of road safety audits are being conducted to identify blackspots. Maintenance and upkeep of infrastructure is a challenge. Moreover, there have been several instances of use of substandard construction practices and materials.
The road construction sector faces several challenges pertaining to utility shifting, land acquisition, local demands, community engagement, frequent change in scope, quality of detailed project reports, etc., apart from issues related to environmental and social impacts technological integration, lack of workforce skills and labour shortage, which result in delays and cost overruns. Climate change is also a unique challenge, with changing weather patterns and rising sea levels threatening coastal roads and bridges. Adopting climate-resilient design standards and integrating climate change projections into planning and design processes can ensure the long-term sustainability of road infrastructure.
Technological integration and innovation are crucial, but their implementation can be complex and costly. Further, safety is paramount in road widening and construction projects. At present, road safety challenges stem from factors such as distracted driving, speeding, impaired driving, infrastructure deficiencies, work zone safety, intersection safety, driver behaviour, road design, adverse weather, rural road safety, enforcement and compliance, and emerging technology. To address these challenges, governments, road authorities and transportation agencies must invest in infrastructure improvements, enhance safety education enforce traffic laws, promote safe driving behaviours, and adopt emerging technologies.
Delays in the acquisition and possession of vacant land still remain major challenges in the timely execution of projects. The issue gets more complicated in the case of widening of existing two- or four-lane highways to four and six lanes, owing to ribbon development, obstructing structures and utilities. Land being a state subject, even though funding towards the cost of land is borne by MoRTH and its implementation organisations such as NHAI and National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited and distributed timely, proactive administrative support from respective state governments is crucial in the timely possession of required land. In recent years, sourcing suitable earth (soil) for embankment construction of highways within reasonable distance from project alignment is becoming increasingly difficult, raising the input costs and delaying execution. Although pond ash is a suitable substitute for natural earth and addresses environmental issues, the challenge persists until central and state thermal power plants fully reimburse the logistics cost incurred to carry it to project sites on time. Another key challenge faced by developers is the introduction of several new items of work, particularly vehicular and pedestrian underpasses, etc., post project award in the midst of construction, owing to deficiencies in field studies and preparation of detailed project reports. This lateral introduction of new elements not only disrupts construction progress and schedules severely but also strains the cash flows of developers, as the process of approval and payment typically tends to be quite prolonged.
With an increasing number of projects to be implemented under stringent deadlines, qualified construction workers are in high demand. However, lack of adequate experienced and trained people is causing severe strain both on execution and workmanship. While the government encourages private sector participation in infrastructure development across sectors, achieving a genuine partnership between government and private sector entities is yet to be seen.
As delays in declaring commercial operation dates for completed projects are another critical challenge that the industry faces, it is important to recognise the harsh reality that user fee collection is a perishable commodity. Timely completion and commissioning of projects are crucial for both project developers and authorities, as they would have invested huge amounts in construction and land acquisition.
What role is technology playing in the execution and O&M of road projects?
In the execution of road projects, technologies such as LiDAR and drones are being used for accurate surveying and mapping of project sites, aiding in topography analysis and data collection. GPS and telematics are being integrated into construction equipment for real-time tracking and route optimisation. Robotics and automation are being explored for the laying of asphalt and concrete, and for increasing precision and speed of construction. Software tools such as Civil 3D and Building Information Modelling are being used for precise and efficient road design. On the O&M side, intelligent transportation systems, including technologies such as sensors, cameras and traffic management software, are assisting in traffic flow monitoring and management, reducing congestion and improving road safety. Electronic toll collection systems such as FASTag are enabling seamless toll collection and traffic flow. Meanwhile, GIS is being used for asset management, while technologies such as automated speed enforcement, surveillance systems and driver assistance systems are improving road safety. Energy-efficient lighting solutions, such as LED street lights, are being used to reduce energy consumption and maintenance costs. Moreover, smart solar energy grids alongside roads could contribute to energy generation and sustainability.
Technology has had a significant impact on the construction industry. It has enhanced efficiency, safety and sustainability in road projects. Building information modelling, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies have significantly improved road construction projects by enhancing design, visualisation, collaboration and risk mitigation. Geographic information systems deliver accurate mapping and surveying, reducing errors and optimising resource utilisation. Drones are increasingly used for surveying, mapping, and monitoring construction sites. Automation and robotics in construction have improved efficiency, reduced labour costs, and worker safety. Augmented reality and virtual reality technologies are used in road projects for visualisation and simulation. Meanwhile, data analytics has enhanced asset management and predictive maintenance. Smart infrastructure and connectivity have transformed road projects into intelligent transportation systems, integrating sensors, cameras and advanced traffic management systems. Maintenance and asset management are crucial with remote sensing techniques such as light detection and ranging and infrared imaging, which helps in identifying potential defects and deterioration.
Physical and digital technologies are essential throughout the project life cycle, from conceptualisation through surveys, planning, design, construction, monitoring, operations and maintenance. The past decade witnessed large-scale mechanisation of construction activities, which could not have been possible without continual technological upgradation and innovations in construction plant and equipment. The use of differential global positioning system-based LiDARs, drones in filed studies/surveys and the use of building information modelling in planning have tremendously quickened pre-construction activities. In addition, soil graders and compactors fitted with digital 3D controllers, state-of-the-art wide sensor pavers with mechanised dowel and tie bar insertors, texturing and curing attachments in the execution of rigid pavements, high capacity hot mix plants with reclaimed asphaltic pavement (RAP) feeder attachments, contactless mobile loaders for seamless feeding of hot mix materials into pavers fitted with multiplex sensors, high capacity vibratory rollers for compaction of thicker bituminous layers, concrete kerb and drain casting and road marking machines and fully automatic precast element manufacturing plants for culverts are playing a greater role in expeditious and quality construction.
In the past decade, network survey vehicles equipped with laser sensing, GPS and video image processing tools have been used to collect road inventory and pavement condition data for pre-commission inspections, pavement maintenance management and road safety audits. Modern construction technologies have revolutionised road construction, setting several world records for rigid, flexible and in-situ pavements in the past two to three years. PNC Infratech also set two world records of laying the highest quantity of 42,666 mt of dense bitumen macadam continuously in 100 hours over 50 km of a single lane under package 29 of the Delhi-Vadodara Expressway Project and has received the National Highways Excellence Award from MoRTH and the Government of India for the same. Another key milestone is the successful implementation of nationwide electronic toll collection system using FASTag, which reached a penetration of around 98 per cent on national highways and has greatly reduced waiting time of vehicles at toll plazas, hugely saving fuel, apart from controlling vehicular pollution.
With the growing emphasis on sustainable development, what practices and materials are being used for construction?
Today, various techniques, practices and materials are being used in road construction to minimise environmental impact, improve longevity and reduce resource consumption. Recycled materials, such as reclaimed asphalt from pavements, are being incorporated into new asphalt mixes, reducing the demand for new raw materials. Crushed concrete from old structures is being reused as an aggregate in new concrete mixes, and reused aggregates such as crushed bricks, ceramics and other construction waste materials are also being used. Warm mix asphalt technologies allow asphalt to be produced and placed at lower temperatures compared to traditional hot mix asphalt, reducing energy consumption and emissions.
Geosynthetics such as geotextiles, geogrids and other materials are being used to enhance soil stabilisation, and for erosion control and drainage, reducing the need for extensive excavation and soil transport. Industrial by-products such as fly ash and slag from power plants and steel industries are being used in concrete and asphalt mixes, reducing the need for cement and natural aggregates. Incorporating natural vegetation and landscaping alongside roads helps mitigate environmental impact and enhances aesthetic value.
Sustainable development is critical in today’s world, and road construction plays a key role in the transition towards environmentally friendly practices. Innovative techniques, practices and materials are being employed to promote sustainable road construction, reduce environmental impact and foster long-term viability. Lean construction is a systematic approach, aimed at identifying and eliminating waste in processes to deliver more value to customers with fewer resources. Green infrastructure integration involves incorporating natural elements, such as biodiversity, into the design. Low impact development strategies minimise disruptions caused by construction activities, focusing on the preservation of vegetation, erosion control and reduction in site disturbance. Recycled materials, such as reclaimed asphalt and crushed concrete, can be adopted to conserve resources and minimise waste. Energy-efficiency measures involve adoption of energy-efficient equipment, machinery, schedule optimisation and intelligent traffic management systems. Materials for sustainable construction include warm mix asphalt, geosynthetics like geotextiles and geogrids, glass fibre reinforced polymer, ground granulated blast furnace slag and bio-based binders. These enhance performance, reduce environmental impact and minimise maintenance requirements.
Minor minerals such as earth, sand, stone aggregates, and water are directly sourced from natural reservoirs, while materials such as steel, cement, bitumen and others are acquired from secondary sources, predominantly comprising natural raw components. In order to achieve sustainable development, construction must consider both environmental implications and natural resource depletion. Hence, implementation of sustainable practices, spanning from the initial design stage through to engineering, procurement and construction, is crucial.
Optimisation of quantities to be used through value engineering, innovative techniques and advanced construction methodologies at the design and planning stage; use of alternative materials such as plastic waste, pond ash and recycled construction materials such as RAP, building waste/debris; use of geofibres and grids; and use of chemicals for soil stabilisation and cemented base and sub-base to optimise pavement thicknesses during execution are already being practised in the industry as a part of the sustainable development efforts.
What are the key trends that will shape the sector going forward?
The road sector will likely see an increased focus on eco-friendly construction materials, energy-efficient lighting and sustainable road designs to minimise the environmental impact and reduce the carbon footprint. Further, with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, road infrastructure will need to be designed with climate resilience in mind to withstand challenges such as flooding, heatwaves and heavy rainfall. The integration of technology, sensors, and data analytics will continue to play a pivotal role in optimising road network operations, traffic management and real-time information dissemination. Meanwhile, data analytics and predictive modelling will likely play a larger role in road management, helping authorities predict maintenance needs, optimise traffic flow and enhance road safety. As electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles gain further traction, road infrastructure will need to adapt to accommodate charging infrastructure and ensure the safety and efficiency of autonomous driving.
The infrastructure sector is undergoing a transformation due to technological advancements, changing demographics and the need for sustainable development. The key trends shaping the sector include sustainable infrastructure, digitalisation and smart infrastructure, resilience and adaptation, urbanisation and mass transit, and PPPs and InvITs. Sustainable infrastructure focuses on minimising environmental impact, promoting resilience, and supporting long-term viability. Smart infrastructure utilises sensors, data analytics and automation to optimise asset management, operational efficiency and safety. Resilient infrastructure incorporates climate-resilient features, while adaptive infrastructure anticipates future demographics, technology and climate changes.
More greenfield expressways and highways with elevated structures and tunnels for seamless travel, and major bridges with much longer spans with either cable-stayed or extra-dosed supports will be key trends in the foreseeable future. On the operations front, MoRTH plans to employ GNSS technology to eliminate barriers at toll plazas, enabling gateless plazas where cars do not need to halt. More and more foreign investors are expected to invest in operational road assets in India and InvITs will continue to be a viable investment framework for road developers and investors. However, the sector will look forward to having more innovative financing methods and investment mechanisms. Additionally, domestic players are anticipated to collaborate more with major foreign construction firms and technology providers.
The government is expected to continue its proactive approach, provide support and come out with more encouraging policies to boost sector growth in pursuit of becoming a $5 trillion economy. Rapid use of modern technologies and digitalisation will shape the sector in the future. As the sector advances, end-to-end 3D printing of roads and highways may be within closer reach than imagined.