Insufficient expansion funds keep Mekong Delta gateway a bottleneck

By Gia Minh   August 19, 2023 | 09:00 pm PT
The lack of funds to widen the narrow main highway connecting HCMC with the Mekong Delta has impeded traffic for years.

On Thursday afternoon, a driver named Van Chien tried to inch his cargo truck little by little between long line of all but stalled cars and trucks on a section of National Highway 1 through HCMC’s Binh Chanh district that is supposed to be the "gateway to the Mekong Delta."

But excepting late hours in the middle of the night, the "gate" appears to be closed and this slim bottleneck of a road looks more like a parking lot.

Even though it was not rush hour, Chien’s truck was boxed by the density of vehicles sluggishly crawling on both sides of the "highway," both entering and leaving the southern metropolis. Vietnam’s largest city food supply depends on the Delta, which is known as southern Vietnam’s "rice basket" and also a main source of produce and other agricultural products. And the "basket" relies on the bustling urban area – the south’s business and commerce hub – to sell its goods and order industrial equipment.

Chien watched helplessly as drivers, many carrying shipments or returning home after completing deliveries, encroached on roadside shoulders or even sidewalks to escape the congestion. Swerving drivers endangered pedestrians and other vehicles, and horns honked in a constant cacophony surrounding the highway from all sides.

Traffic jam on National Highway 1 in Binh Chanh District, April 30, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Minh

Traffic jam on National Highway 1 in Binh Chanh District is packed with , April 30, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Minh

More than three kilometers away from Chien, the road near Binh Dien Bridge was also in a state of congestion, with trucks and passenger cars at a virtual standstill, and long sloth-like lines on feeder roads to enter or exit the highway.

"Despite the traffic jam, we had no choice because there are only two routes from HCMC to the delta and the other one is National Highway 50 which is also always overloaded," said Chien.

There are days when it takes Chien as long as an hour to travel 10 km to get out of the city and reach the HCMC – Trung Luong Expressway, which is currently the only expressway linking the city with the delta, he said.

The section of National Highway 1 at HCMC’s western border runs from the An Lac Intersection in Binh Tan District to Long An Province.

It is not only the main route from the city to the Mekong Delta, but also the link between many major roads such as Vo Van Kiet Boulevard, Nguyen Van Linh Boulevard and HCMC - Trung Luong Expressway. It is also the and the channel feeding the Mien Tay Bus Station, where people go to travel from HCMC to Mekong Delta localities and vice versa.

Traffic is backed up on National Highway 1 on August 17, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Minh

Traffic is backed up on National Highway 1 on August 17, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Minh

More than 10 years ago, HCMC leaders had already been considering a plan to widen the road, but said they could not raise the capital to do it.

In 2012, the city's transport sector authorities proposed upgrading a 2.5-km section of the highway, but that proposal appears to have faded into oblivion.

Three years later, HCMC-based Infrastructure Development Investment Joint Stock Company (IDICO), proposed an item to expand National Highway 1 through Binh Chanh District while also upgrading the highway through Binh Tan District, which borders Binh Chanh, under the build-operate-transfer (BOT) format.

IDICO got permission to upgrade the highway in Binh Tan District and expand it to 35m-wide. However, due to several regulatory issues, the company was not allowed to carry out the project despite the permission.

As a result, the highway in Binh Chanh District remains a bottleneck between HCMC and the Mekong Delta, funneling large amounts of vehicles at a snail’s pace.

Then in 2016, the city therefore implemented a project to build a road connecting the HCMC – Trung Luong Expressway with Vo Van Kiet Boulevard, which runs from HCMC’s downtown to National Highway 1 in Binh Chanh District.

The purpose of the new road, stretching 2.7 km, was to allow vehicles to move between the boulevard and the expressway without having to enter the gridlock of National Highway 1.

As planned, the road is slowly being built in the BOT form and is costing more than VND1.55 trillion (US$65 million). Still unfinished, the route has not helped overcrowding even though it was originally scheduled for completion in 2017.

The project was suspended when it was only 12% complete after the investor, HCMC-based Yen Khanh JSC, was found to have been involved in a number of violations and the BOT contract is in the process of termination.

With progress on the road connection at a standstill still since 2015, all vehicles must still go through National Highway 1 when moving between Vo Van Kiet Boulevard and the HCMC – Trung Luong Expressway.

Traffic jams on the highway in Binh Chanh District, as a result, have become even worse over the years, especially on holidays and the Lunar New Year, when tens of thousands of people flock to their hometowns in the Mekong Delta and then return to the city. To boot, the region’s population of people and vehicles continues to expand.

In response to the ever more urgent situation, the HCMC Department of Transport has recently proposed expanding 10km of the highway in Binh Chanh from 20m to 52m wide. The project will be carried out in BOT form and cost VND12.9 trillion, and the city will cover half of the funds using its own budget.

The department made the proposal after the National Assembly (NA) in June passed a resolution granting HCMC more administrative autonomy.

Dr. Chu Cong Minh from the HCMC University of Technology said the project needs a massive amount of capital and the city cannot rely on public investment.

Thus, the specific mechanism in the NA’s resolution opens up great opportunities for the city to attract resources and quickly invest in important projects that have been delayed for many years, such as widening National Highway 1.

"The longer the delay, the bigger the investment expenses will become, not to mention the social damages caused by the prolonged traffic congestion," he said.

Bui Van Quan, president of HCMC Cargo Transport Association, said National Highway 1 traffic jams at the western gateway of the city has greatly affecting both citizens and businesses for years.

"For businesses, instead of being able to operate three-four daily trips to transport goods, they sometimes cannot not make even one trip per day, and this has not affected just businesses, but also generates many other costs, as it makes transportation and cargo costs more expensive," he said.

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