by Tran Dinh Ba, PhD
In recent years, the country has been plagued by the syndrome of "high-speed." We've been racing to build high-speed roads, high-speed railways and at high-speed cost.
The lessons at Trung Luong – the 39.8km expressway running from HCM City to neighbouring Tien Giang Province – must be learned in expectation of a second national north-south highway in 2015.
Built at a cost of nearly VND10 trillion (approximately US$0.45 billion), Trung Luong allows vehicles to travel at a maximum speed of 120 km/h, halving the travelling time between the two destinations.
After temporarily opening to traffic in February 2010, people marvelled at the speed limit while Trung Luong was considered one of the few expressways in the region that met international standards.
Soon after, portions of the road started sinking, leading to hundreds of potholes. At some places it even pushed upwards, causing speed bumps and making it extremely risky for motorists.
Sure enough, more than 6,600 accidents occurred by June 2011 in which 18 people were killed and dozens injured. Many accidents resulted from burst tires, speeding and driving in wrong lanes.
Last November, the Transport Ministry suspended the official managing board of the Trung Luong expressway, blaming poor road quality for the vast number of accidents.
Carrying 61,000 vehicles per day, the HCM City-Trung Luong expressway requires high-level technical maintenance. In addition, tropical and humid weather have done much damage to surfaces.
The current toll fee, which could reach VND640,000 ($30.5) per round-trip, has deterred most heavy trucks, forcing them to use National Highway 1A.
What was the point of building the expressway if it could not reduce pressure on the main highway and other roads?
While the transport sector relies partially on high toll fees to cover maintenance costs of roads and infrastructure development, high prices could damage the region's socio-economic development. If vehicles continue avoiding the highway, Trung Luong's exploitation capacity would be limited, negatively affecting turnover.
However, if we force drivers to pay such high tolls, we automatically force companies to up goods prices to meet transportation costs.
Higher goods prices shift the burden to residents, who don't need more problems.
In the US, an American-standard highway connecting Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia allows drivers to reach a speed limit of 130km/h.
However, while the road meets strict maintenance requirements, most vehicles rarely reach such speeds.
The intense level of vehicles make even a small mistake capable of causing a "domino effect" that could affect hundreds of cars with major consequences.
We're borrowing ODA funds to finance roads that can sustain speed limits of 120 km/h, but we can't bear the cost of maintaining them under current weather conditions.
And now, we're expecting an ambitious second national highway in 2015 to run through 28 cities and provinces and cost trillions of dong.
Lessons on management and cost effectiveness at Trung Luong could provide a wake-up call.
Other countries are making efforts to develop national railways as an important part of their strategic transport plans. Railways are considered more cost effective, safer and more environmentally friendly.
When the National Assembly rejected the high-speed railroad project that could've seen trains reach 300km/h at a cost of $56 billion, millions of people were relieved. Some transportation experts were not.
It wasn't until China had to deal with the railway crisis in 2011, that our experts got taught another lesson.
Therefore, it's all about management. It's time we put a stop to the "high-speed" syndrome for building roads and highways we can't possibly manage. — VNS
The author is from the Viet Nam Railway Transport Society of the Viet Nam Economic Association.