Chantrea district, Svay Rieng province – The 105-km road from Neak Leoung to the Bavet border crossing is a rare sight in a country with notoriously bad roads: It’s wide, smooth and pleasant to drive on.
Until, that is, the road ends abruptly south of Svay Rieng town, about 18 km from the Vietnamese border. Then drivers must maneuver their vehicles through large ridges of dirt, all while trying to avoid stray animals and large construction equipment that is leveling the unfinished portion of National Route 1.
“The hardest part in constructing the road is dealing with the traffic,” said a foreman for Nopawong Construction Co, the Thai company building the road, as he sat, exhausted, in the middle of the road on a dirt ridge and lit a cigarette.
The stocky foreman, who declined to give his name, was understandably tired. His crew, he said, has been working all year with only a few days off. The work day begins at 6 am and ends at 11 pm. Lights on the large construction equipment allow the crew to work late into the night.
Nopawong must complete the road by Dec 31 or it will face a fine of $2,000 per day—a standard clause in international civil works contracts. In the rush to beat the deadline, some workers interviewed this month said the quality of the road has suffered.
Senior officials from Nopawong and the Asian Development Bank, which issued a loan for the project, deny those allegations. However, the government has conceded that the road is not as sturdy as it could be and will require significant maintenance to keep it smooth.
The concept of building a road linking Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City gained momentum during a Mekong Sub-regional Economic Cooperation conference in 1994, in which delegates from six Mekong River countries called the project a top priority.
Back then, Cambodia’s infrastructure was almost completely destroyed, and ongoing guerrilla warfare by Khmer Rouge forces made travel on certain roads risky at best, deadly at worst.
Nonetheless, the ADB forged ahead with feasibility studies on the proposed road. About four years later, in late 1998, the bank agreed to loan the government $40 million to renovate Route 1 from Bavet to Phnom Penh.
However, by the time Prime Minister Hun Sen presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for the road in December 1999, those plans had been scaled down. The road would extend only from Bavet to Prey Veng province’s Neak Leoung—a ferry-crossing town known for being mistakenly bombed by the US in 1973—with a price tag of $24 million. The original contract called for the road to be completed by Dec 31, 2002.
Construction on the project, like the road during the 1990s, was bumpy. Nopawong had subcontracted Cinco 5, a Vietnamese company, to build part of the road. The subcontractor did not complete the work quickly enough, however, and Nopawong was forced to take over Cinco 5’s portion of the road earlier this year.
The government has revoked portions of other Cinco 5 contracts because the company worked too slowly—primarily because it lacks working capital, officials said. Road contractors are typically paid after they complete sections of the road.
Over a period of a few months earlier this year, Cinco 5 lost $4.5 million of a $6 million contract to reconstruct portions of National Route 5 (Phnom Penh to Battambang) and National Route 6 (Phnom Penh to Siem Reap).
The poor performance of Cinco 5 alone was not responsible for construction delays. They were also caused by Nopawong’s “cash flow problems” and “poor contract management,” said Urooj Malik, ADB country director.
In addition, significant flooding between 2000 and 2002 prevented construction vehicles access to the quarry. Nopawong requested that the contract completion date be extended to Dec 31, 2003, without penalty, and the government agreed.
Despite the flooding, Malik said that “the contractor was given adequate time extension by the government to complete the works.”
Residents along the uncompleted portion of Route 1 expressed concern in mid-December about the construction delays, mostly because they were tired of inhaling the large amounts of dust whipped up by the constant flow of dump trucks barreling up and down the dirt road.
Those immediate concerns, however, were trumped by the road’s projected long-term benefits. With the new road, business owners said, more cars will come. More cars mean more people, and more people mean more money.
“I’m so, so happy to have a new road,” said Chan Soriya, 57, as he sat in the shade, watching a bulldozer troll by his house. “Before the road was like a water canal. You could almost race a boat down it.”
A few years ago, he spent his savings, about $3,000, to buy a small car which he used to transport household items from Bavet to Neak Leoung. The bumpy road, however, took its toll on the car and put him in a financial bind.
“All my money went to the car-fixer,” Chan Soriya said.
Just as mechanics may lose business with a better road, taxi drivers said their profit margins have been trimmed. For them, more traffic means more competition from buses and car owners who previously would not subject their vehicles to the bruising road.
“When there was a bad road, I earned $50 per day,” said Van Non, 41, as he waited with other taxi drivers about 50 meters from the Vietnamese border. “Now I average about $15 per day.”
Though taxi drivers will suffer, he and the other drivers around him said the completed road is now a joy to drive.
While it’s hard to find anyone who disagrees that the region will reap significant economic benefits from the road, interviews with several workers turned up questions about the road’s quality. The most often voiced concern was that in the rush to complete the road, Nopawong has not followed the proper procedures to compress the dirt that forms the road’s foundation.
Compressing the dirt is usually done methodically in a time-consuming, step-by-step process, said Veng Thea, a Nopawong construction worker who has been working with compression crews on the road. Instead of compressing just a little amount of dirt at a time, however, he said crews were speeding up the process by compressing larger amounts of dirt at once.
“When compression is done quickly, it takes away from the quality of the road,” Veng Thea said as he stood near a backhoe on the construction site. This could cause the road to break up more quickly, he said.
Moreover, for other sections of the road, Nopawong had been trucking in high-quality dirt. But for the uncompleted section of road, the company is using lower quality dirt from the surrounding area.
“It’s not as good as dirt from the mountain,” Veng Thea said.
When told of the workers’ claims, Nopawong’s project manager, Wana Nithawana, said that the road has no quality problems. “The road is going to last,” he said.
Malik also said the ADB was not concerned that the quality of the work might suffer in the rush to finish the road.
“International consultants are on site to supervise the quality of works as well as the quality of materials placed on the road,” he said. “The contractor is not permitted to place material on the road that has not been tested in a laboratory.”
He added that the resident engineer lives in Svay Rieng, from where he travels throughout the construction site to supervise the project.
The government, however, said that since time is running out and loan money from the ADB is limited, Route 1 is not of the same quality as National Route 4, which links Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh.
“National Route 4 was scheduled to be fixed after 30 years, and National Route 1 is scheduled to be fixed after three years,” said Uk Chan, undersecretary of state at the Public Works Ministry. “We cannot build a quality road because money is limited.”
Though the road is being built to international standards, an expert from the Japan International Cooperation Agency said that it will require more maintenance to keep it from deteriorating.
JICA is currently conducting studies to build both a bridge over the Mekong River at Neak Leoung and the rest of Route 1, from Neak Leoung to Phnom Penh.
Similar to Route 4, the portion of Route 1 from Neak Leoung to Bavet was constructed with a process known as double bituminous surface treatment, or DBST, said Koizumi Yukihiro, assistant resident representative of JICA.
“Compared with DBST, asphalt concrete is better in terms of smooth driving and life period,” he said. “But DBST is less expensive than asphalt concrete.”
The difference between the two roads, Uk Chan said, was that Route 4 is much thicker than Route 1. The road to Ho Chi Minh City will not be able to handle truckloads of more than 25 tons, he said.
Instead of using DBST to construct its portion of the road, however, JICA plans to use asphalt concrete. “The life of the road completely depends on how often and how appropriately the government maintains the road,” Koizumi Yukihiro said.
Malik said that the ADB has no plan to finance maintenance of the road, which it expects to last for more than 10 years with regular maintenance. He added, however, that the ADB has “assisted the government in putting in place a mechanism for road maintenance.”
The government is currently interviewing residents along the road from Neak Leoung to Phnom Penh to see if they are in favor of building the road.
One of JICA’s conditions for the project is that 70 percent of residents must want the new road before it allocates any money. Koizumi Yukihiro explained that JICA doesn’t want to rush into the project if residents object to it, and said JICA would even wait a few years before starting construction.
As one section of Route 1 comes to an end—likely sometime in January, Nopawong officials say, though Uk Chan mentioned June—and planning for the other section gets under way, the road’s benefits are clear to all. And so is the need for the government to properly maintain the roads once they are completed.
Malik said the ADB is pleased with the results of the project. “But,” he added, “we need to ensure it is completed on time and is sustainable over the long term.”
To do that, the Public Works Ministry plans to set up two weigh stations; one on the Monivong Bridge in Phnom Penh and one in Bavet.
“If we can stop overweight trucks, we can protect our road,” Uk Chan said. “If we can’t, the road will break up within a short period.”