The Japanese Friendship Bridge was a din of frustration on Wednesday evening.
With horns blaring and engines revving, drivers crept forward into a mess of motorbikes, cars, bicycles, trucks and 16-wheelers—all competing for spots in the single-lane crossing over the Tonle Sap River.
An ambulance, its green lights flashing and siren wailing, sat trapped among other vehicles. The 6 pm traffic jam, stalled even more by ongoing construction on the bridge, chafed drivers’ nerves.
Stuck near the foot of the bridge, Hun Srun, 37, sat on his motorcycle, frowning. A small boy dozed on his lap; a man and a woman perched on the back. Some nights, Hun Srun said, he waits two hours to get back to his home 7 km away in Russei Keo district.
“We waste a lot of time and gasoline,” he said, his tired eyes fixed straight ahead.
Prompted by increasingly common gridlock—and the possible damage that standing traffic is causing to the Japanese and Monivong bridges—municipal official are seeking $50 million from domestic and foreign investors to build three new bridges within the next decade.
City Hall officials said they would close investor bidding for the new bridges, which opened last week, within the next two months. But feasibility studies to determine such crucial particulars as bridge design and land allocations could take longer to complete.
Under the city’s proposal, the specifics of which have not yet been finalized, a new bridge would span the Tonle Sap alongside the Japanese Bridge, feeding traffic to National Route 6A and Route 5. Another would stand next to the Monivong Bridge, emptying traffic across the Bassac River to Route 1. The third would also be built across the Bassac, connecting Takhmau town to a feeder road linked with National Road 1.
“We don’t know yet how much land will be needed for each bridge, and we can’t give an exact cost,” said Sam Piseth, a municipal land management and urbanization department construction expert who is involved with the feasibility study.
Nonetheless, City Hall last week opened bidding for the $50 million undertaking; at least three large construction firms expressed interest, said Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Pa Socheatavong. He would not name them, but said the bidding could close within the next two months. He said the feasibility study would be completed within the next five months.
“I believe that investors already see a business potential and profit from bridge investment,” said Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema, adding that the city would grant investing companies the right to charge tolls.
Sok Kong, president of petroleum giant Sokimex, said his company is considering bidding but has not yet decided to do so.
“We must move ahead and make plans now if we want to reduce traffic in the next five years,” Sam Piseth said.“We can’t just be stuck here. We have to move. City development is moving forward. If we start now, the new bridges will be finished in the next three to five years.”
The need for new bridges has been building for years for a variety of reasons, officials said.
Kep Chuktema named a quickly growing city as the main reason: city population, now at 1.4 million, is growing at an average annual rate of 3.2 percent, putting too many people on the bridges.
Police officers patrolling the bridges confirmed that, saying that they see multiple traffic accidents each day. “Day to day there are more and more people using the bridge,” said officer Pheng Ngoun, eyeing the traffic jam on Monivong Bridge at 7 am Wednesday. “Another bridge is a good idea,” he added.
Pheng Ngoun, whose police unit patrols the bridge around the clock, said traffic is usually bumper-to-bumper for three hours in the morning and another three at night. He added that he sees too many accidents to count.
Officials also fear that the Japanese and Monivong bridges are bearing traffic loads they weren’t built to withstand. Since October, workers have conducted maintenance on the joints of the Japanese Bridge, but officials say routine maintenance won’t be enough to cope with the hundreds of thousands of vehicles.
“If we won’t build a new bridge, Chroy Changva Bridge will be broken one day in the future,” Kep Chuktema said. “You see that construction workers are fixing the bridge every day. They can’t handle 450,000 vehicles, especially heavy transportation.”
The Japanese Bridge is also known as the Chroy Changva Bridge.
Workers at the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, which helped advise on the repairs to the Japanese Bridge in the early 1990s, could not comment on the new bridges proposal, or say if it was necessary.
An infrastructure specialist at the Japanese Embassy did not return phone calls.
Standing near the Japanese Bridge Wednesday evening, officer Chhel Syna said he has seen a sharp increase in traffic over the last five years. He dismissed such ideas as stationing more police on bridges, or adding stoplights to ease and regulate the traffic so the bridge is not overloaded.
For Chhel Syna, the only solution is more bridges. “The problem here is different from other countries because people don’t want to wait in line here,” he said.