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Means and end on the wrong side
Son Nguyen
Friday,  Aug 18, 2017,16:42 (GMT+7)

Means and end on the wrong side

Son Nguyen

It takes for granted that even the right end cannot justify the wrong means. In the saga surrounding the public objection to the tollgate placed on National Highway 1 in Tien Giang Province, however, it is now uncovered that both the end and the means are on the wrong side.

As covered in local media, drivers’ anger these days has led the tollgate to grind to a halt, prompting officials at the Ministry of Transport to shuttle between several meetings in both Hanoi City and Tien Giang Province over the past few days to solve the deadlock. A satisfactory outcome can be seen unattainable, as the public in general and drivers in particular on one hand demand that the tollgate be relocated to the right place, while both the Transport Ministry and the investor on the other side defy, saying all processes related to the project are in strict compliance with the law. Sarcastically, it all looks like the public voice has more logical grounds.

The saga began early this month when BOT Tien Giang Company, the investor, started to collect fees at the tollgate erected on National Highway 1 to recoup the money spent on its project to build a road bypassing Cai Lay Town in Tien Giang. The fees are exorbitant, as the investor explains it has gained approval from the Transport Ministry to do so. The aim is to collect fees within six years to recover nearly VND1,400 billion spent on the 12-km bypass and the facelift of a 26-km section of the national highway, the latter component costing VND300 billion.

This build-operate-transfer (BOT) project, according to Tuoi Tre, was originally approved in 2009 to build the bypass only. BOT projects, it should be noted, are meant to mobilize private funds to tackle infrastructure bottlenecks.

However, as the bypass project was seen as financially unviable, a component to upgrade the highway was added four years later. And, as the bypass does not draw road users, the investor has erected the tollgate, stonewalling the highway and compelling all drivers to pay the high fees no matter whether they travel on the bypass or not. It is the root cause of public disapproval.

In this controversy, however, the upgrade of a highway section is added to the original project, which is not meant to address infrastructure bottlenecks, but apparently to provide the investor with a good excuse to collect fees. The Transport Ministry is apparently to blame.

Under prevailing regulations, all traffic infrastructure facilities overseen by the Transport Ministry should be repaired or upgraded by the State, while BOT investors are allowed to develop new roads or bridges only. This practice makes sense because all vehicle owners already have to pay annual road maintenance fees.

Ngo Viet Nam Son, a renowned architect, stresses in Tuoi Tre newspaper that “repairing roads to meet the traveling demand of the people is a mandate of the Government. The people pay taxes (and fees), so why don’t we use it to repair roads but pass it to the private sector?”

Several workable solutions have surfaced lately, the most feasible one being to relocate the tollgate to the bypass, while the State will reimburse the investor the amount it spent upgrading the national highway plus an interest sum.

Nguyen Xuan Thanh at Fulbright University Vietnam suggests on the news website Infonet that the Transport Ministry extract a sum from the Road Maintenance Fund to repay the investor the sum it used to upgrade the highway. The investor will be reimbursed the investment amount plus interest immediately, without having to wait for six years to recover the investment, says Thanh.

Such a solution is squarely rejected by both the investor and the Transport Ministry.

In answering a question from Nguoi Lao Dong on the solution, a board member of BOT Tien Giang Company rejects the idea, saying the company will return the whole project to the State and regain the investment if it is required to remove the tollgate to the bypass. “The company will not be able to recover the investment (if the tollgate is relocated) because we need VND10 billion a month to service banks loans,” says the company’s representative, hinting that the bypass does not attract drivers. Such a point also poses questions over the necessity to develop the bypass as a right end.

Meanwhile, Deputy Minister of Transport Nguyen Ngoc Dong at a press conference in Hanoi yesterday also vehemently rejected the tollgate relocation scheme, saying “the entire financial plan for the project would collapse,” Tuoi Tre reports. He also reassures the public that the venue for the tollgate has been carefully chosen.

In fact, the venue for the tollgate has been chosen in a way to maximize returns for the investor, and this is not the only BOT project in the country wherein the investor’s interests prevail over those of the public.

Deputy Minister of Transport Nguyen Nhat admits in Nguoi Lao Dong that the venue for the tollgate in this case is not anything abnormal. He reveals that as many as eight bypass projects have been developed under the BOT format nationwide, and the tollgates for all such bypasses are placed on National Highway 1. Such explanations also backfire. Citing readers’ opinions, the newspaper says that if all tollgates for such bypasses have been wrongly placed, then authorities should quickly remedy the wrongdoing.

“It is unacceptable to remedy the wrong by another wrong action… No matter how much it may cost, we have to resort to the right means to remedy the wrong,” says the paper. But the right means is not to be used, at least in this case.

For several years now, BOT projects have prompted widespread public outcries due to exorbitant fees and the locations of the tollgates. According to Lao Dong, numerous protests by drivers against tollgate operators have taken place this year, especially in the north. Transport expert Pham Sanh says in the newspaper that the lack of transparency is still a striking problem in the use of the Road Management Fund as well as the random collection of tolls on the wrong roads, which are all unacceptable. “What we should rethink is not the public protest, but the illogical existence of tollgates,” says the paper. 

Also according to the paper, the existence of nearly 90 tollgates across the country is a huge burden for not only transport enterprises or drivers, but the entire society. It is the final straw that breaks the back of a camel, says Tuoi Tre.

The public agony over tollgates in general and Cai Lay tollgate in particular can hardly be settled in a fair way, as the Transport Ministry stressed at the press conference in Hanoi yesterday that the tollgate will not be allocated. Instead, toll fees will be reduced from next week to ease the burden for the people. This lukewarm solution, apparently, is not the right one to the wrong approach taken by the ministry and BOT investors. Both the means and the end are seen on the wrong side.

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