Highway profligacy

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Experts allege needless spending on first expressway, authorities differ

Over the edge: A truck goes off the road on the Ho Chi Minh City Trung Luong Expressway. Vehicle owners and drivers complain they are charged unreasonable compensation from the expressway's management center. Experts have alleged the project has squandered large sums of money on unsuitable technologies.

The nation's first expressway will be investigated by the Government Inspectorate following allegations that its major investor wasted hundreds of billions of dong on unsuitable technology.

Under question is the use of Novachip, a paving process that "places a thin, coarse aggregate hot mix over a special asphalt membrane," mostly used in preventative maintenance and surface rehabilitation of roads.

In an interview with Thanh Nien, Tran Huy Khang, who holds a doctorate in the surface structure of streets designed for four-wheeled vehicles, said all insiders, including the investor, knew that the Ho Chi Minh City Trung Luong Expressway was subject to sinkages as it was built on weak soil.

The sinkages are due to continue for many more years as a natural course before the 39.8- kilometer highway's structure becomes stable, Khang said.

In fact, sinkages were reported at four spots on the road just two months after it opened to traffic on February 3, exclusively for four-wheeled vehicles.

My Thuan Project Management Unit under the Ministry of Transport, the project investor, bought the Novachip technology to treat the road's surface from US-owned Hall Brothers International Company, even though it would have no structural impact, Khang said.

The technology is good for surfaces that have completed the natural course and stabilized, but the investor applied it on the expressway shortly after they finished its basic works, he said.

"The foreign contractor didn't bother to find out if the technology was being applied at the right place or the right time, or if the technology was very efficient, instead they focused only on the business benefit," Khang said.

Khang also expressed concern that the same situation will be repeated elsewhere with Hall Brothers offering the Novachip technology, to other projects like the Lang Hoa Lac Highway in Hanoi.

In response, Hall Brothers told Thanh Nien that they were only contracted to apply the Novachip concrete on the expressway's surface for VND107 billion (US$5.6 million), not to sell the technology.

Khang also criticized the HCMC-Trung Luong's investor for installing hundreds of raft foundations at bridges and drains along the road to lessen the sinkage, which is a costly move that would not address the problem for a long time.

These unsuitable technical solutions have partly contributed to tripling the project's investment to VND10 trillion ($525.8 million).

The road, which aims to cut travel time between HCMC and the Mekong Delta by an hour over using the National Highway 1A, reduce traffic congestion as well as accidents, is probably one of the most expensive roads in the world, Khang said.

He estimated that each kilometer of the expressway has cost VND250 billion ($13.4 million) compared to the average of $3.7 million per kilometer in China and $1.6-2.6 million per kilometer in Europe.

Vo Phan, associate professor of geo-mechanics at the HCMC University of Technology, also said investors shouldn't use costly technologies to treat the surface of roads built on weak soil before they stabilize, structurally.

However, in an interview published on local news website VietNamNet on May 31, Transport Minister Ho Nghia Dung rejected the contention that using Novachip technology inefficiently had increased the project's investment.

Novachip is needed for expressways designed for vehicles running at between 100-120 kilometers per hour, Dung said.

It was only applied at bridges which are free from sinkages, and not the whole route as alleged, he told VietNamNet.

According to the minister, the project's total investment was higher than expected mainly because the design had to be adjusted a lot during the course of building.

However, "don't call it the world's most expensive way," because compared to current cost prices, it isn't that expensive, Dung said.

Doan The Tuong, deputy head of Vietnam Institute for Building Science and Technology under the Ministry of Construction, said the investor and related contractors should be held responsible for the expressway's sinkages, whether they knew about it in advance or not.

Many state-owned companies seem to spend people's money generously but improperly, Phan said.

Unreasonable claims

In another controversy relating to the expressway, vehicle owners and drivers are complaining that the road's management is demanding unreasonable payments for damage caused during traffic accidents and other mishaps.

Tran Thi Bach from the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang said she was asked to pay VND40 million ($2,108) after her truck had a flat-tire and caused a 41-meterlong scratch on the road's surface in March.

The Management Center handed over the vehicle and all related documents to the traffic police of Long An Province, where the incident occurred, and asked her to visit their headquarters and settle the dues five days later, she added.

Another vehicle owner, Nguyen Phong Tuan from the south-central province of Binh Thuan, said he was shocked to learn he had to pay over VND75 million ($3,952) for damage caused by his truck which crashed into a barrier along the road last week.

The demand was too high, Tuan said, adding he would complain to related agencies and ask them to assess the damage again.

Nguyen Thai Phu from the Mekong Delta province of An Giang also complained about the VND92 million ($4,848) he was asked to pay for scratches on the road surface and barrier damage caused by his truck.

Worse still, vehicle owners couldn't ask insurers to refund the fines paid because the Management Center did not give them invoices issued by the Ministry of Finance, only receipts, said Huynh Van Lam, director of the Bao Viet Insurance Company's branch in Tien Giang Province.

Right or wrong

In a telephone interview, Duong Tuan Minh, general director of My Thuan Project Management Unit, admitted the center was collecting the compensation even though such a move had not been approved yet by the Transport Ministry. He said they were doing so because they could implement the plan [to collect compensation] as soon as the ministry approved it.

Minh said the money collected so far has been deposited with the State Treasury and will be returned to the vehicle owners if the ministry doesn't approve the proposal. If it is given the green light, the money will be paid to the state budget and spent on repairs, he said.

Trinh Minh Hien, chief of the transport ministry's Legal Affairs Department, said it was okay to ask people to pay for damages caused, adding some laws already sanctioned the paying of compensation as a civil responsibility.

Tran Son, deputy head of legal instructions and traffic accidents solving office under the Ministry of Public Security's Department of Road Railway Traffic Police, said investors always have to bear the costs of damage caused by traffic accidents.

However, for build-operate-transfer (BOT) projects, like the expressway, investors or management units can claim compensation from those causing the traffic accidents, he said. In Vietnam, under the BOT model, ownership of an asset reverts to the government after a set period of time.

Lawyer Tran Dinh Trien of the Hanoi Bar Association disagreed, saying those who cause accidents are already subject to fines and punishment under traffic laws, so it's impossible to ask them to pay compensation for the damage caused to roads.

Lawyer Nguyen Minh Thuan from Saigon Vietnam Law Company, meanwhile, said compensation can be claimed only when vehicle drivers are at fault.

In case of force majeure like flat tires, drivers and vehicle owners cannot be subjected to compensation claims, Thuan said.

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