Vietnam highways cost an arm and a leg

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A pothole in the 62-km HCMC - Trung Luong Expressway, which opened in 2010 after being built at a cost of VND10 trillion (US$481.9 million)

Vietnam spent US$7.4-28.2 million to build a kilometer of four-lane expressway last year, according to a report from the Ministry of Construction.

Compiling the figures based on prices recorded during the second quarter of last year, the ministry said expressways in mountainous and highlands in the northern region cost the lowest.

One kilometer of expressway cost $17.2 million on average in the southern delta, $10.6 million in the northern delta, and $10.5 million in the central region.

The costs were higher than in other countries like China, where a kilometer costs $7.6-14.3 million, and South Korea, where it cost $19.16 million per kilometer for a 15.26-kilometer road in Busan in 2011, the ministry said.

Deputy Minister of Transport Tran Van Son said the high costs were due to a "complicated" topography consisting of many canals and rivers, highways in the northern and southern deltas required many overpasses which cost three to five times more than the road.

In fact, overpasses accounted for 20-25 percent of an expressway's total costs in the deltas, he said.

The most expensive was the Ben Luc Long Thanh Expressway, a 57.8-kilometer road connecting Ho Chi Minh City with Long An and Dong Nai provinces.

Some roads also required spending on works to strengthen the surface of the ground, Son added.

Projects in Vietnam are often delayed by years due to slow land acquisition and lack of funds among other reasons, leading to cost overruns.

For instance, the 61.9-km HCMC Trung Luong Expressway, which connects the city with the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang, and the Cau Gie Ninh Binh road that goes through northern provinces, saw costs increase 50-60 percent after being delayed for more than three years.

But Pham Xuan Mai, a lecturer in the Traffic Technology Department at the HCMC University of Technology, rejected the ministry's claims.

Expressways do not go through crowded residential areas, but mainly through vacant lands, he pointed out.

It is also "unreasonable" to say that overpasses and drainage systems make Vietnam's expressways more expensive than those of other countries, he said.

Other countries have to build them as well, and some like Japan even build roads over the sea and in harsher conditioners, he argued. 

Moreover, in Vietnam labor and constructional materials cost much less than in many other countries, so construction costs here should be lower, he said.

"It is even more unreasonable that while construction costs are too high, the quality of roads is lower and has a shorter life than in many other countries."

The HCMC Trung Luong Expressway, for instance, made headlines for its many quality-related problems that arose just a couple of months after it was opened in February 2010, he said.

"[The paradox] is a question that builders and state management agencies need to answer."

He blamed the problems on shortcomings in how expressway projects are managed, the "cumbersome" administrative procedures, and "unofficial" expenses, which he estimated to account for some 30 percent of cost.

The National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, should set up an independent agency to supervise expressway projects instead of allowing management agencies to do so like now, he added.

Pham Sanh, a transportation expert, told Thanh Nien that expressways costs less in other countries because they have vast experience and, so, clear policies for management and technical standards.

He also expressed concern at the way the ministry computed costs, saying it was not enough to merely rely on topographic features.

Related agencies should not "hastily" fix costs for expressway projects in Vietnam, or investors could take advantage in future when many more roads are sure to be built, he said.

Nguyen Xuan Thanh, director of Public Policy Program at the HCMC-based Fulbrights School, said $8 million per kilometer is a "reasonable" cost for expressways in Vietnam given that it cost $7 million in the US in 2010 and the same in China now.

Vietnam first started building expressways in 2005, and has since built some 150 kilometers.

Another 600 kilometers will be built by 2015.

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