Traffic - March 19, 2023 | 04:00 pm PT

Southland’s expressways leave region still gridlocked

Trung Luong - My Thuan Expressway in Tien Giang Province in the Mekong Delta. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

2010 was a turning point in Lam Dai Vinh’s career. It was the year Vietnam’s first expressway, Ho Chi Minh City – Trung Luong, opened to link the nation’s economic hub with the Mekong Delta, its agriculture hub.

It was also the year when Vinh founded a transportation company in Ho Chi Minh City.

It was a year of high hopes.

But two decades later, the Delta and the entire southern region account for only 146 km of expressway, 12% of the nation’s total.

Going forward to go backward

Vinh’s company entered the business with 15 tractor-trailers to carry containers between HCMC and the Mekong Delta via the HCMC – Trung Luong Expressway, a 61.9 km stretch of road linking HCMC’s Binh Chanh District with Tien Giang Province.

Before the expressway, all transportation between the Mekong Delta and the rest of the country was made exclusively via National Highway 1.

As the small highway had fallen into disrepair, it took drivers almost three hours to move 100 km from Tien Giang to HCMC.

But since the HCMC – Trung Luong Expressway came to life, the travel time has been cut to just one hour.

HCMC - Trung Luong Expressway runs along National Highway 1A to connects HCMC with Mekong Delta provinces. Graphics by VnExpress/Hoang Khanh

"Expressways will open a new future for high volume logistics," Vinh said, recalling the motivation behind his startup more than 20 years ago.

He was completely right, and his business was initially successful.

The government approved in 2008 a master plan toward developing an expressway network through 2020. The plan comprised 22 expressway projects with a total length of 5,873 km: seven each in the north and the south, three in the central region, and five ring roads in Hanoi and HCMC. Together, they would complete a nationwide expressway system.

In Jan. 2011, the Party passed a resolution identifying traffic infrastructure system bottlenecks stymying national development. The resolution stated that investing in the expressway system would be an important driving force behind the country's progress. It set a target of having 2,000 km of expressways by 2020.

In the following years, expressways were built one after another across the country.

Vinh’s company kept up with the trend and expanded its business, raising its number of tractor-trailers from 15 to 40.

But that is where the realities of life on the ground began to veer from Vinh’s dreams.

Vietnam had approved three different master plans for expressway development in 2008, 2016 and 2021, with the latest plan saying the country would have 9,041 kilometers of expressway by 2050.

As of last June, Vietnam only had 1,239 kilometers of completed expressway running through 29 localities, according to the Department for Roads of Vietnam.

Home to the first-ever expressway in the nation, the entire southern region, including the Mekong Delta, now has just three expressways stretching 146 kilomters in total, which is far below the target set in 2008: seven expressway routes with a total length of 983 kilometers.

The Mekong Delta, or the southwestern region, is home to 20 million people, or a fifth of Vietnam's population.

Spreading 40,000 square kilometers, or 12.2% of the nation’s total area, it accounts for 17.7% of the country’s GDP, 90% of exported rice, 60% of exported fruits and 70% of exported seafood. But there is only one expressway connecting it with the rest of the country.

Within the delta, which is home to 13 localities, there are now less than 100 kilometers of expressway, or 7% of the nation’s total. And it took 13 years of construction for the HCMC – Trung Luong Expressway to be extended by 51 kilometers. Only then could the Trung Luong – My Thuan Expressway finally open to traffic last April.

‘Good for nothing’

But even after all that, Trung Luong – My Thuan was quickly overloaded.

Costing VND12 trillion (US$510 million), the Delta’s second four-lane so-called expressway only allows vehicles to move at a top speed of 80km/h and does not include an emergency lane.

"The expressway is good for nothing," said a driver named Le Minh Thuan.

Traffic jam on HCMC – Trung Luong Expressway, July 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

It seems 20 years after the region’s first successful expressway, everything is now back to ground zero.

Thuan usually takes passengers from Tien Giang Province to HCMC. He said if using National Highway 1, there is a high risk of congestion yet there are still chances for him to slip through traffic jams by moving to other lanes or even use other small roads alongside the highway to get out of the congestion and later get return to the highway.

There is no escape once he is stuck in a traffic jam on Trung Luong – My Thuan. And he says it happens regularly.

"Neither the highway nor the expressway is good for drivers," he said. "But the highway is still better than the expressway."

Clogged arteries

As the only expressway linking HCMC and the Mekong Delta, the once-lauded HCMC – Trung Luong Expressway is now famous for its traffic problems and reckless drivers.

Between 2019 and 2022, almost 600 traffic accidents took place on the expressway, which currently receives 52,000 vehicles per day on average, 74% higher than its designed capacity.

Drivers said the large number of vehicles on the expressway means they can only travel 60-70 km/h.

Vietnam’s southeastern provinces are suffering the same fate.

The HCMC-adjacent region, home to the industrial hubs of Dong Nai and Binh Duong and the port hub of Ba Ria-Vung Tau, has only one expressway, the HCMC – Long Thanh – Dau Giay, which runs 55 km.

The expressway currently receives more than 60,000 vehicles per day during peak seasons, such as holidays or weekends, which is 1.5 times higher than designed. There are cases in which drivers spend as long as three hours stuck on this "expressway."

"The expressway planning for the southern region is adequate and complete, yet the implementation of those plans has dragged on way too slowly," said economist Tran Du Lich, former head of the HCMC Institute of Economics.

He said the construction of expressway systems in the south has failed to meet the needs of the nation’s most dynamic economic region.

Express traffic impossible on expressways connecting with HCMC. Video by Tuan Viet, Hoang Nam

Two decades of insufficient funds

Lich said lack of capital is the main hindreance to the proper expansion of expressway projects in the southern region.

In the 2011-2015 period, the Mekong Delta was allocated VND67.5 trillion in state capital for transport infrastructure development, accounting for 12.2% of the country’s total amount.

In 2016-2020, the delta got VND65 trillion, or 15.5% of the nation’s total.

Ministry of Transport data from 2011 and earlier years revealed that investment capital for traffic construction in the Mekong Delta was among the lowest in the country, higher only than the Central Highlands region.

The ministry has stated that the state budget capital was only enough to invest in renovating and upgrading national highways. Therefore, expressways approved before 2010 were all built by official development assistance (ODA) loans. As the allocation of ODA loans among regions depends on donors, it is difficult to avoid inequality, the ministry said.

Economist Lich said that while the state budget is limited, major projects in southern Vietnam have continued to depend heavily on public investment, and there have been just a few projects carried out under the public-private partnership (PPP) format.

"We need mechanisms so that the state budget will be used only as 'prime capital' to attract private investment," he said. "We cannot rely wholly on state capital because it will never be able to meet the demands of infrastructure development."

Duong Nhu Hung, Dean of Department of Industrial Management at the HCMC University of Technology, said one of the reasons expressway projects in the Mekong Delta are behind schedule is their heavy reliance on the central government to look for ODA capital.

Hung said that when expressway localities have actively sought solutions to attract private resources, the story has been different.

He held up the Hai Phong – Ha Long – Van Don – Mong Cai Expressway as an example.

The major infrastructure project in northern Vietnam opened to traffic last year, linking the northern port city of Hai Phong with the Mong Cai International Border Gate at the frontier with China.

Running 176 kilometers long, the investment capital for the project was estimated at VND65 trillion (US$2.8 billion), but only an aprroximate VND9.5 trillion came from the state budget. The rest of the project was funded via a combination of sources, including government funding, loans from international organizations, and private investment attracted directly by local authorities.

Litany of blame continues

In addition to a lack of funding, the Ministry of Transport also cited difficult terrain and a shortage of construction materials as factors holding back expressway development in the delta.

"High building costs are the main reason for the lack of expressways in the region," Deputy Minister of Transport Nguyen Duy Lam said at a conference in HCMC last June.

Buildling in the detla requires 1.3-1.5 times the normal investment because the region is "home to a lot of waterways, has weak geological layers and faces the impacts of climate change," he said.

It cost an average VND220 billion to build one kilometer of expressway in the Mekong Delta in 2017-2020, but only VND132 billion in other regions.

The delta is the final destination of the Mekong River before it reaches the sea. A majority of the delta was formed by sediment and sand deposits brought to the area by the river for over 6,000 years.

Nguyen Tan Dong, deputy chairman of HCMC-based Deo Ca Group, which built the Trung Luong – My Thuan Expressway, said: "The deeper layers of the Mekong Delta are mainly sand, and 80% of the ground above is also soft, which easily caves in and gives way."

He said the condition is "a challenge" for traffic works.

In addition, construction materials are "scarce" in the region, he said, adding that transportation takes longer and costs more than normal "because of the crisscrossing of waterway networks."

Missed opportunities

"The Mekong Delta is the nation’s agricultural hub, but there is a lack of roads to serve trade and transporation, especially expressways," said Nguyen Van Dao, director of Godaco Seafood JSC.

Based in My Tho, a town in the delta’s Tien Giang Province, the company supplies the market with around 50,000 tons of seafood products each year, according to its website.

As the company exports goods to more than 70 markets, logistics is "vital" for the business, said Dao.

However, the underdeveloped infrastructure system has caused the company to spend disproportionate amounts on logistics costs, a business restraint that the company has yet to find a solution for.

According to the Vietnam Logistics Business Association, logistics fees that companies in the Mekong Delta have to bear make up 30% of their production costs, a figure two times higher than the average national level in 2021.

Experts say this is incongruent and unsustainable as the region is the nation’s key agricultural economic hub serving both domestic and export demand.

"The high logistics cost that Mekong Delta firms have to bear has created a domino effect that affects the nation’s economy," said Hung at the HCMC University of Technology.

He said that while the Mekong Delta accounted for 14% of nation’s gross regional domestic product in 2010, the ratio had since dropped to only 5% by last year.

Citing the World Bank, Hung said that if logistics costs were reduced by 1%, the delta’s export market share would increase 5-8%.

If traffic infrastructure is improved, logistics costs will be reduced, and the competitiveness of the region's signature products will return, he said.

New hope

Expressway projects planned for the south central and southern regions. Graphics by VnExpress/Hoang Khanh

"I determine to improve the traffic infrastructure in the Mekong Delta region within this government term [2021-2026]," promised Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh when meeting with constituents in Can Tho City, the delta’s capital, in January.

In January, he said Mekong Delta localities must speed up work to open 463 km of new expressways between now and 2026.

PM Chinh ordered related agencies and localities to speed up work and complete current projects within the next three years to give the Mekong Delta 544 km of expressways by 2026. That is three time the amount of expressway road that exists in the redion now.

Commenting on the government’s new initiative, economist Lich said the limitations of transport infrascture in the detla had been "properly considered."

But as a businessperson, Lam Dai Vinh has chosen a new path for himself after spending years waiting for new expressways: He has gradually shifted his business to the north, where the expressway system is better developed.

Gia Minh, Hoang Nam, Thu Hang