Following the launch of Abu Dhabi’s urban development masterplan, Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, in 2007, Abu Dhabi’s city planners hoped they could avoid many of the problems of overstretched infrastructure Dubai experienced during its five-year construction boom. 

But two years on, the authorities are still struggling with a problem that will be familiar to residents of Dubai: traffic congestion. While the government has a series of proposals to relieve the problem, for now it is getting worse.

Government figures show that the number of personal trips taking place on the roads each day is 1.2 million. This is forecast to rise to 5.4 million as the population grows to about 3.2 million by 2030, up from about 900,000 now. If transport development does not keep pace with population growth, the emirate’s Department of Transport says the city’s roads will be at full capacity by 2020.

Revamping the transport system is a key part of Abu Dhabi’s plan to triple its annual gross domestic product (GDP) to $400bn by 2030. By investing heavily in infrastructure and establishing good local and international transport links, the emirate can start to develop economic opportunities in sectors such as tourism and trade, which depend on an efficient transport network.

“Persuading people to use public transport could be the hardest part of the emirate’s plans”

Abu Dhabiplans to spend big. John Lee, highways and transport planning adviser to the Department of Transport, says a minimum of $68bn is needed to execute all the public transport projects in the pipeline and “a lot more work needs to be done to pin down the cost”.

Highway improvements, an urban metro, a surface tram system, ferries, a port, airport expansion, more buses, air-conditioned bus stops and restrictions on taxis in the central areas are all part of Abu Dhabi’s masterplan to ease road traffic congestion.

Speaking at MEED’s Abu Dhabi conference on 10 November, Lee said most of the $68bn would be spent by 2017. Of the total, one third will be spent on the 340-kilometre-long light rail transit or tram system, another third on 1,500km of highways improvements, buses and ferries, and the remaining third on the 130km high-speed urban metro. Abu Dhabi will also benefit from the construction of the $8bn Union Railway, which will provide passenger and freight services across the UAE.

The masterplan will largely be funded by the state, although substantial interest from the private sector is expected on selected projects. The Department of Transport says it hopes the private sector will contribute about 30 per cent of the total cost.

Private finance

One example of private sector financing so far is the $2.7bn upgrade of the highway from Mafraq, near Abu Dhabi island, to Ghweifat, on the border with Saudi Arabia. The project is being carried out through a public-private partnership (PPP) – the first of its kind on a transport project in Abu Dhabi. After a series of delays in the bidding process, five prequalified consortiums are due to submit offers to the Department of Transport on 6 December.

The winning bidder will expand the existing 327km dual carriageway to eight lanes from Mafraq to the Al-Ruwais junction, and to six lanes as far as the Saudi border. The work should be finished by the first quarter of 2014.

The success or failure of this scheme will determine whether other projects in the emirate use the PPP model, but the Department of Transport could also set up new corporate bodies that are able to issue their own debt. The department will also use revenues generated from parking and congestion charges, as and when they are introduced, and from ticket sales on the metro and tram.

However, persuading people to use public transport could be the hardest part of the emirate’s plans. Currently, the limited public transport network is rarely used, not least because the large number of wealthy residents and the relatively low cost of fuel mean most people can afford to run their own cars. But the problem of traffic congestion means this is no longer convenient and people could be encouraged to leave their cars at home if there is a viable alternative.

The record of passenger numbers on the Dubai metro offers some evidence to support this – an average of about 60,000 people a day have used the metros since the first 10 stations opened on 9 September.

To persuade residents to leave their cars at home in favour of public transport, Abu Dhabi will have to show that public transport is faster and more convenient by ensuring there is an adequate number of transit stops to link with feeder services, including buses and ferries.

Abu Dhabi’s metro, some of which will be underground, will not be completed until 2020, but the first phase, which will be 42.5km long, should be running in 2015.

It is designed to provide a fast service between the city’s main commercial areas. One line will run down the spine of Abu Dhabi island, taking commuters between Capital City and downtown Abu Dhabi. The metro will also be integrated with the tram and bus services. The tram network will have more than 340km of track, connecting Abu Dhabi International airport with the central business district and other key areas. It is expected to start operating in 2014.

The Department of Transport is currently tendering the design consultancy contract for both the metro and tram schemes. Bids for the tram’s 18-month feasibility study have been received, and the contract is due to be awarded early in 2010.

Road improvements

While the emphasis of the masterplan will be on public transport systems in Abu Dhabi city, other parts of the emirate, including the Western Region, will also benefit from improvements to the road network. Work continues on the $200m upgrade of the Al-Ain to Dubai highway, which is due for completion early next year. The Department of Transport says there will also be 350 buses serving Al-Ain by the end of 2011.

Abu Dhabi’s international transport links will also be overhauled, with a new $6.8bn midfield terminal planned for Abu Dhabi International airport. Abu Dhabi Airports Company is due to issue the tender for the construction contract by the end of the year and the 220,000-square-metre terminal should open at the end of March 2015.

The terminal will be able to handle up to 20 million passengers a year and will be the third passenger terminal at the airport. The airport’s passenger-handling capacity will rise from 12 million to 32 million passengers a year.

A more advanced scheme is the multi-billion dollar Khalifa Port & Industrial Zone (KPIZ) being developed at Taweelah. Designed to replace the ageing Mina Zayed as the capital’s sea-trade hub, it will have an offshore port and onshore facilities.

Although all five phases of the project are not expected to be completed until 2028, the first phase should be open by 2012. It will have a container and break-bulk terminal, with total capacity for 2 million 20-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) a year and 6 million tonnes of general cargo. The four remaining phases will lift capacity to 22 million TEUs a year and 35 million tonnes of cargo by 2028.

With the total cost of developing the Khalifa Port estimated at $10bn and the airport terminal costing a further $6.8bn, Abu Dhabi will spend far more than $68bn on improving its transport infrastructure over the coming years. But with high oil revenues and private finance, it should have little difficulty in affording it.

The bigger challenge is execution, with progress slow this year. The Department of Transport has been evaluating bids for the metro consultancy since May, with no sign of an award, meaning design work on the metro will not start until 2010 at the earliest.

There have been similar delays on the Mafraq-Ghweifat highway. Tenders were first issued in April and are now due to be submitted in December, meaning construction is unlikely to start until well into 2010.

But if the emirate is able to deliver its ambitious strategy on time, and if the authorities can convince people to use the new public transport network, rather than private cars, it will have solved its traffic problems. If not, Abu Dhabi residents, like their neighbours in Dubai, will have to learn to live with worsening congestion.

CAPTION – Growing problem: Traffic congestion in Abu Dhabi is increasing as the emirate’s population grows and the number of         trips taken on the roads each day rises