When it comes to traffic congestion, Kuwait is king. Residents complain of an all-day rush hour and visitors are advised to factor in extra time between business meetings. Accidents caused by road-rage are common. The road and interchange system cannot cope with the number of cars on the streets, but with no public transport system as such, and taxi prices the highest in the Gulf, there are few alternatives to driving.

The situation is compounded by geography. Kuwait City is bordered by the sea to the north and east. To the west, the development of oil fields and water catchment areas restrict development. The urban sprawl has been forced to spread southward, creating a severely limited transport corridor.

It was not always so, but ? as in other GCC states ? the economic boom and the subsequent increase in numbers of both cars and people has caught the authorities off-guard. Kuwait was especially ill-prepared, its transport infrastructure creaking badly after years of underfunding.

All this is set to change. The government, through the Ministry of Public Works (MPW) and the Communications Ministry ? there is no transport ministry in Kuwait ? has embarked on a multi-billion-dollar plan to modernise the state?s road, rail and airport infrastructure. With the overall population expected to double to 5.3 million by 2030, the state recognises rapid action is required to avoid gridlock.

Top of the agenda is the upgrade of the main arteries ? the five concentric ring-roads that divide Kuwait City, bearing the brunt of the traffic load. ‘By widening the roads we can significantly improve flow rates,’ says Abdulatif al-Dakheel, assistant undersecretary for roads and sanitary engineering at MPW. ‘A lot of the problems are also caused by low entry and exit rates at interchanges and the idea is to minimise the need for traffic to stop at these junctions as much as possible.’

Run the road

International consultants of the calibre of Parsons Brinckerhoff, Louis Berger and Hyder Consulting have been brought in to design upgrades of the ring-roads to motorway status. As most of the ring-roads pass through heavily populated residential and/or commercial areas, the planning has been extensive. ‘Designing the upgrades can be problematic, and tough decisions are often necessary,’ says one consultant. ‘In some cases, properties will inevitably have to be knocked down.’

The biggest and most difficult of the projects is the first ring-road. Upgrading the road, which passes right through the historic centre of the capital, will involve building 17 vehicle bridges ? three of which will be more than 500 metres long ? and seven pedestrian bridges, 2 million cubic metres of soil excavation and more than 300,000 cubic metres of concrete. The $100 million contract to build the first of three phases was recently awarded to a local/Greek team of Copri Construction Enterprises and Aktor.

MPW is forging ahead with upgrading the state?s other main thoroughfares, including the widening of Jamal Abdulnasser, Damascus and Cairo streets. Also in the pipeline is a three-phase project to build a 73-kilometre motorway to Subiya from Jahra, as well as the construction of two further ring-roads and a 252-kilometre regional highway from the Saudi border in the south to the border with Iraq in the north (see future projects table).

The state?s landmark road project is the 36-kilometre Subiya causeway ? linking Kuwait City with Subiya. Although prequalification applications for the estimated $1,500 million design and build contract were submitted in early spring by more than a dozen companies, a bidders? shortlist has yet to be announced. ‘The official reason is that the Council of Ministers [cabinet] needs to approve the project?s budget,’ says one government official. ‘But the real reason is that there is still some pressure from certain sources to cancel the scheme and retender it on a BOT [build-operate-transfer] basis.’

Recognising that building or widening roads will not entirely solve the state?s long-term traffic problems, the government recently announced plans to develop a light rail transit system for the capital. Parsons Brinckerhoff has carried out a pre-feasibility study on the multi-billion-dollar project for the Communications Ministry, but no firm decision has been made on whether to proceed. Preliminary plans point to a three-phase development of either an underground or elevated rail system with a minimum investment cost of at least $5,000 million. The first 32-kilometre phase will run in an inverted U-bend from Farwaniyah to Salmiya and include more than 30 stations. Cost estimates range from $1,110 million for an elevated route to $2,100 million for a metro system. Additional phases will see the network extend southward to Fintas and Fahaheel as well as westward to Shuwaikh (see table).

This may not be the end of rail expansion in the state. The government is at the forefront of the GCC rail network plan and would like to see any national railway include connections to the airport and the planned port at Bubiyan. Kuwait stands at a good strategic location and the trade advantages of having a first-class rail network have not been missed.

Plans are being considered in parallel for an expansion to Kuwait International Airport (KIA). A German/local team of Dorsch Consult and SSH recently completed a build-operate masterplan for a new passenger terminal and are now working on the feasibility study for the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). The estimated $690 million-1,000 million development will increase annual capacity to 20 million passengers from 6 million, as well as enable the airport it to receive the new Airbus A380 superjumbo.

Much like the hydrocarbons and housing sectors, the government is not holding back on investing in its transport infrastructure. After years of stagnation, overflowing coffers and a strong political will have provided the impetus to drive through substantial change.