Road developers are in a tizzy as both debt-servicing ability and returns of national highway projects have come under severe strain as the economics has gone haywire because of low traffic, execution delays and cost overruns.

Over the past couple of years, traffic growth on national highways has slid precipitously, in conjunction with the economy and industrial production. An analysis of traffic growth across 15 national highway projects that have been operational for over three years revealed that overall traffic growth, estimated at 7-8 per cent between fiscals 2008 and 2011, slumped to 3-4 per cent in 2012 and to 2-3 per cent in 2013. In fiscal 2014 too, the traffic growth has been weak due to sluggish economic activity.

The culprit was commercial vehicle traffic, whose slowdown overshadowed a healthy 15 per cent average growth in passenger vehicle traffic during this period.

Special purpose vehicles

This deteriorating trend is also mirrored in the revenues of a dozen special purpose vehicles (SPVs) operating under the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model. Revenues of these SPVs have grown by about 12 per cent in the past couple of years. During this period, toll rates rose by 8-9 per cent per annum as these are linked to the wholesale price . But poor traffic growth negated most of the benefits.

The scenario is unlikely to improve much in the near-term. Road traffic has high correlation with industrial growth . While we expect IIP to recover in fiscal 2015 to about 4 per cent from the decadal low of about 1 per cent it hit in fiscal 2014, it will remain well below the long-term average.

Consequently, commercial vehicle traffic growth will be lacklustre and overall traffic growth on national highways will languish at 3-5 per cent in fiscal 2015. As almost the entire operating costs in a road project are fixed in nature, any variation in the traffic, especially during initial years, has a significant bearing on the project returns.

Slow traffic growth on national highways is not the only problem plaguing developers. Base traffic (in the first year of a highway’s operation) has been much lower compared to the NHAI draft project report estimates. To be sure, developers would have done their own math on traffic, including expected leakages and exempt vehicles, before bidding, yet they will be concerned about how wide off the mark the original estimates were.

Compounding these problems for road developers are delays and the resultant cost overruns. Of the 78 BOT projects completed between fiscals 2000 and 2013, more than three-fourths or 61 projects faced delays, with the average time overrun at 10.5 months. The situation has only worsened in the last couple of years. Execution hasn’t begun for about 33 projects awarded in fiscal 2012 .

The double whammy of lesser-than-expected traffic and cost overruns has severely impaired the debt-repayment ability of developers. For five of these projects, the average debt-service coverage ratio during the first five years of operations is estimated to be less than one. This means equity infusion is essential to ensure timely servicing of debt, especially since tying up for additional debt will be difficult in the current scenario. Returns for these road projects are also expected to be 8-14 per cent, much lower than the 22-26 per cent returns based on NHAI traffic and cost estimates.

The above-mentioned scenario is representative of most road developers. Clearly, road developers are being buffeted by problems from all sides and have very limited room for manoeuvre. Recently, the government offered some respite by relaxing exit norms and allowing for premium deferment in the case of stressed projects. However, it might turn out to be a case of too little, too late.

The author is Director, Crisil Research, a division of Crisil

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