National Assembly lawmakers last Friday expressed skepticism over a Ministry of Public Works and Transport report that the AZ Distribution Co has spent about $4.8 million on maintaining US-built National Route 4, the country’s best-maintained highway.
Kim San, chairman of the Assembly’s Public Works, Post and Telecommunications, Industry and Commerce Commission, said an independent investigative body has charged privately owned AZ with inflating its figures to demand undue compensation from cargo-carrying vehicles at its toll gate outside Phnom Penh.
The unidentified group priced AZ’s road maintenance costs at around $2.5 million, Kim San said.
The group also concluded that AZ would be able recover all its investment capital and profits during the first year because it had underestimated the number of vehicles moving goods between Sihanoukville and the capital.
According to AZ and Tram Iv Toek, secretary of state for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, 470 trucks use Route 4 every day.
Lawmakers criticized the expenses AZ claimed, saying they could damage the livelihoods of Cambodians. Since the toll gate opened Nov 6, prices have risen for vehicles carrying products such as iron and gasoline.
Kim San added that many businesses on Route 4 will now face serious profit losses because they will be charged frequent tolls as they transport goods short distances along the road.
Tram Iv Toek said he would discuss the lawmakers’ comments with his ministry. He also defended the government’s decision to contract AZ to maintain Route 4 and tax vehicles using it.
He complained that the Asian Development Bank had grossly underestimated the cost of maintaining Cambodia’s 11,500 km of national roads when it allocated $40 million for the job.
Opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay said Tuesday that the details of AZ’s government contract have not been made available to lawmakers and that its very existence is a mystery. “The whole thing is illegal,” he said. “There is no law enforcing a toll.”
Citing figures from an earlier draft of toll charges, Son Chhay said AZ and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport originally intended for trucks hauling containers to pay $18 per passage and for other trucks to pay $12 to $14, depending on their weight.
Trucks hauling containers are currently charged $6.30 plus a 10 percent value added tax, and other trucks are charged $1.65 to $2.50 plus the VAT.
According to Son Chhay, Tram Iv Toek responded to criticism of the original, exorbitant toll costs by saying, “If [Cambodians] have the money to pay for the vehicle, they have the money to pay the toll.
“I said, ‘Why? What country does this?’ He said, ‘This is a business,’” Son Chhay said.
The opposition parliamentarian said he expects the current tolls to be tripled after the elections scheduled for next July if the contract with AZ is not abolished before then.
Son Chhay also said he would tell people to ignore AZ’s toll gate. “If they don’t pay, what happens to them?” he asked. “There is no law to arrest them.”
The government also recently granted AZ the license to operate a new Internet-based international telephone gateway, from which the government will reap an unusually low 30 percent of the revenue.