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Dig deeper for irregularities
By Son Nguyen
Thursday,  Oct 18, 2018,20:25 (GMT+7)

Dig deeper for irregularities

By Son Nguyen

The upbeat mood has been high since Danang-Quang Ngai Expressway was opened to traffic last month, linking major economic centers in the central region, and giving a strong boost to transport as the expressway allows for a maximum speed of 120 kilometer per hour. Such optimism has however given way soon to worries as local media has cast doubt on the road construction quality. The road underwent a major repair this week, as numerous potholes have appeared.

Contractors have mobilized machines and laborers to dig up parts of the road, scraped off the surface, and re-asphalted the foundation to mend a section of the expressway riddled with potholes, some measuring up to half a meter. The repair was completed this Wednesday.

While the repair work is closed now, it opens up a big question among all walks of life, from the National Assembly and the Government to experts and the general public: is the quality ensured? The answer can only be found if authorities dig deeper into the project, given initial signs of irregularities as covered by local media.

The expressway, with a total investment of US$1.64 billion borrowed from the World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), stretches nearly 140 kilometers in the central region, and is touted as an artery road linking major economic centers and forming part of the ambitious North-South Expressway project. It was formally opened to traffic on September 2, but just weeks later, numerous potholes have appeared.

Upon questions from the press, Nguyen Tien Thanh, director of the Danang-Quang Ngai Expressway Project Management Board under Vietnam Expressway Corporation (VEC) as the project owner, initially pointed the finger at bad weather as the primary cause of the deterioration, news site Vietnamnet reports. According to Thanh, downpours in early October coupled with heavy-duty trucks driving on the road caused the surface to crumble and resulted in potholes.

Such an explanation instantly drew fire, with many experts dismissing it as baseless. As the objection heats up, VEC sought to soothe the public anger by saying bad weather was just one of several factors behind the expressway deterioration. Still, experts have made clear that using weather as an excuse is all wrong, since a project of this scale must have taken into account all possible impacts, including weather and traffic.

The Road Directorate of Vietnam then stepped in, pointing the finger at the project owner and contractors for the poor state of the road. “The fault rests with the construction quality, not the weather,” a representative of the Road Directorate is quoted as saying in the Hanoi-based newspaper An Ninh Thu Do. Similarly, the Transport Ministry has also sided with the Road Directorate, asserting poor construction quality as the key culprit, while  Minister Nguyen Van The in the past week has twice issued warnings to VEC for several shortcomings found in this expressway project, from construction quality to failure to ensure traffic safety.

The Government is also vexed at the problem, with Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung convening a meeting with relevant ministries this Tuesday in Hanoi to demand quick repair and thorough inspection. The Government “sternly criticizes the project owner and contractors for their slowness in tackling quality problems,” he says in Tien Phong, and urges relevant agencies to determine the cause.

Meanwhile, at a meeting of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Monday, Le Thi Nga, head of the NA Justice Committee, demanded that relevant sides be held accountable for the poor quality of the expressway, adding that “blaming weather for the deterioration is unacceptable.” Nga also urged the Government to have a thorough look into the quality of infrastructure projects. “Why does it take so long to complete a project, but just a short while for such works to deteriorate?” Nga is quoted as pondering in Nguoi Lao Dong.

Other NA deputies also take issue with the project owner over the quality. Nguyen Ba Son, a deputy from Danang, says in news site zing.vn that this case will be tabled at the forthcoming NA sitting, where the transport minister will be grilled over the quality of the expressway.

As stated early on, the expressway has now been mended as instructed by the Government and relevant ministries. However, NA deputy Nguyen Ba Son bluntly says in zing.vn that visible potholes are just the tip of the iceberg, and it is possible that numerous other irregularities are still buried deep under the road.

“The people have a good reason to suspect the quality of this project. To date, irregularities have begun to surface,” Son says in the news site.

In fact, initial violations have been unveiled.

As an example, Nguoi Lao Dong reports that Posco Engineering & Construction Co., Ltd was chosen as the main contractor for package A5 worth VND1.4 trillion, but this company has not executed it. Instead, Posco transferred the whole package to 17 local subcontractors.

Among the subcontractors, a consortium comprising Thien An and Vinaconex took over a component worth VND597 billion, but its construction work was halted halfway due to its poor capacity, says zing.vn, citing an inspection from the Transport Ministry. Apart from this consortium, three other subcontractors have also been disapproved by the project owner.

According to the inspection, Posco failed to inform the project owner and the supervision consultant when transferring the package to third parties, while the Bidding Law requires that the selection of subcontractors must be approved by the project owner.

The case of Posco shows that the main contractor could have gained a big profit margin while doing no construction work, simply by transferring the work to other subcontractors, says zing.vn.

Nguoi Lao Dong likens the poor state of the expressway to selling a fake product at a high price for a genuine one, without caring about the buyer’s complaints.

Commenting on the quick deterioration of the road, Tuoi Tre says infringements are likely, from lowering quality standards to save costs to changes of materials for wider profit margins.

It is time the National Assembly and the Government see such irregularities as a form of corruption, and in this expressway project, those responsible must be pinpointed, says the paper.

In a commentary, Lao Dong says that as there have been many roads that quickly deteriorate soon after completion, “it is high time to spray insecticide for all road and bridge projects… Insects in this case are corrupt people, and insecticide is regulations that must be enforced to punish corruption.”

Given signs of violations, the Ministry of Transport has just ordered a thorough investigation into the project, which NA deputy Nguyen Ba Son expects will shed light on wrongdoing.

“With the intervention of inspectors, I believe any wrongdoing will be properly tackled,” says the deputy in zing.vn. He says competent authorities are expected to dig deeper to unearth all irregularities.

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