Vietnam puts brakes on controversial toll station in wake of public backlash

By Staff reporters   December 5, 2017 | 12:39 am GMT+7

The decision sent jubilant drivers pouring onto National Highway 1 to celebrate what they perceive as a victory.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Monday instructed a toll station that has grabbed national headlines to suspend operations for one to two months pending further appraisal in response to lingering protests against its raison d’être that have caused traffic chaos since last week.

In early August, Cai Lay toll station was opened along National Highway 1 in the southern province of Tien Giang for investors to recover the money spent on a project to resurface the highway and build a new bypass around a local town.

However, drivers soon started using small change to pay the toll in protest against the station, claiming it should have been placed along the new bypass instead. The drivers lamented that they were being forced to pay extra fees for a highway they had already forked out for.

The protests resulted in heavy traffic jam for days, forcing the station's operator to temporarily close it in mid-August.

After a three-month hiatus, the station resumed operation last Thursday, only to see disgruntled drivers return with stacks of small change to resume their protest. The ongoing protests have besieged National Highway 1 with traffic chaos, with drivers determined to have the station moved or shut down.

The standoff prompted Prime Minister Phuc to call an emergency meeting on Monday, where he decided no tolls would be collected at the station for 30 to 60 days until the government could make a final decison.

At the meeting, Phuc concluded that even though using the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model for the Cai Lay station was justified and in line with government policy, public opinion and reactions must not be taken for granted. If the masses rail against the project, it merits an across-the-board reevaluation, Phuc said.

"The investment process [of the project] and its adherence to the law will be reexamined," Mai Tien Dung, Chairman of the Government Office, told the press after the meeting concluded late Monday.

“Based on the transport ministry's report, the prime minister will have the final decision on the Cai Lay station," Dung said.

At a cabinet meeting last Friday, Phuc instructed the Ministry of Transport to submit a comprehensive report on BOT projects, and stressed the urgency of resolving the deadlock at the Cai Lay station.

(Under the BOT model, investors transfer infrastructure projects to the Vietnamese government after building and operating them for a certain amount of time.)

Following the government decision on Monday, jubilant drivers erupted into cheers, pouring onto National Highway 1 to celebrate what they perceived as a victory. Then, as word began spreading, the shouts and honking of cars rose to a deafening crescendo.

“This is good news,” Ngo Van Linh, a driver, said. “It proves that our complaints have been heeded," he said.

vietnam-puts-brakes-on-controversial-toll-station-in-wake-of-public-backlash

Jubilant drivers erupted into cheers, pouring onto National Highway 1 late on Monday to celebrate what they perceived as their victory. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Thanh

But meanwhile, Tien Giang police are also launching probes into those accused of inciting the protests at the station. Using video recordings, traffic police have compiled a list of 14 cars that they said kept driving back and forth through the station to deliberately disrupt operations.

Vietnamese media has been unusually critical of the tollgate. Last August, in a scathing editorial, Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper said it was time the ministry overhauled the BOT model to avoid hitting the public where it hurts most - their pockets.

“It is essential that we follow through with state policies, but that doesn’t mean that the ministry cannot learn from the mistakes of previous administrations,” the editorial said, in a direct reference to the then Transport Minister Truong Quang Nghia. Nghia was installed as the new top leader of the central city of Da Nang in October.

His predecessor as transport minister, Dinh La Thang, was removed from the elite Politburo, the Communist Party's decision-making body, in May. He was later fired from his position as the top leader of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s biggest city and commercial hub. Thang was held responsible for “serious” violations and mismanagement during his time as state-run oil giant PetroVietnam's chairman from 2009 to 2011.

Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper was even more forthright in its editorials, asking the transport ministry to scrap the tollgate altogether and punish those responsible.