Rach Mieu bridge moving fast into form

On April 30 three years ago, there was an event that made the whole Island of Coconut sleepless for it was an event that they had been waiting for generations. At the event, the country's Prime Minister Phan Van Khai announced the start of the Rach Mieu Bridge Project to build a bridge connecting Ben Tre to Tien Giang and the whole region of Mekong Delta. The Project is significant in that it will end forever Ben Tre's isolated position due to the large river that separates the province from other parts of the country.

According to plans, the future Rach Mieu Bridge is totally 8,331 metres long, including the leading ways on both sides of the river. Of the 3,030-metre bridge, the Main No. 1 in Tien Giang province is 1,878 metres long, and the Main No. 2 in Ben Tre province is 990 metres long. Then the suspension part is 15 metres wide and 37.5 metres high. Some time late next year (2006), the Bridge will be inaugurated and put into use.

At the moment, about 40% of the project works have been done, according to the Rach Mieu Bridge BOT Co., Ltd, the joint venture between the Cienco 1, Cienco 5 and Cienco 6, established to carry out the project.

Early days of "ups and downs"

It had been a long trek before the Project was officially kick-started on April 30, 2002, by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. First of all, the Project had been shuttled "North and South" for an incrediably long time as it was the topic of endless discussions at the National Assembly and various Governmental Ministries. There were lots of problems to tackle and revision works to do on the pre-feasible and feasible plans, and dozens of other related matters.

Proponents of the Project argued that building Rach Mieu Bridge was a "wake-up" act to push Ben Tre on to the integration map of the Mekong Delta's economy.

But some distractors downplayed the notion that the future Rach Mieu Bridge may dissolve the isolative position of the Coconut Island Province.

The common sense, though, among local people as well as higher ranking policy-makers in Viet Nam put it in the positive way.

An explanation of this contradiction may be that this is the greatest ever project to be invested and carried out soly by Vietnamese forces.

Still, some bear the short-sighted and backward outlook that Ben Tre is just a small province, and its economy is also undeserved the huge sum of investment for the project which is in itself a not-so-universal project.

Indeed, the Rach Mieu Bridge is undoubtedly crucial to Ben Tre's life and economy in the future. The importance is that it must be kick-started and pushed further ahead. Otherwise, it might be a great fiasco for the country in its cause of industrialization and modernization.

Unfortunately, nearly a year after that eventful start, the Rach Mieu Project stayed on in standstill. Difficulties were all attributed to the fact that this is the first ever grand project of bridge building done A to Z by Vietnamese hands and brains, from designing work to investing to field surveying and constructing, without any assistance from foreign experts. It is seen as a pilot project to test the skills and competence of Vietnamese engineers and contractors.

First steps are the hardest. More adjustments have been done only to prolong the already tardy project. So, long after the ground breaking ceremony, the project still underwent many more revisions. The lack of experiences in technical measurement and calculation was seen as one of the main reasons of the situation.

And eventually, some Western experts were invited in to help with design and construction consultance.

Still, it was the financial problem that burdened the project and really drawn it to a turtle-like pace. Those wonderful features drawn on papers were just lying idly in wait for … money from the contractors themselves as well as the main source of subsidy – the central Government.

The total investment of the project was rated at almost 600 billion dongs, in which 25.8% would be subsidized by the Government, and the rest 74.2% was left to the joint contractors here are the Cienco 5 and Cienco 6 under control by the Ministry of Transportation to manage themselves off.

The Cienco 5 and Cienco 6 are some of the leading players in Viet Nam's road and bridge building industry. And the form of contract they signed for the Rach Mieu Bridge was building, operating and transferring (BOT). These two big guys were also said to be fully capable in technical as well as financial terms. So Ben Tre was not illogical to grant the project to them.

But, things are not always going as we simply think it must be. The moment the Rach Mieu Project was approved for construction was also the booming time of big infrastructure projects over the country. Investment funds had to be shared between other projects, which were then more prior than the Rach Mieu Project. So, the Cienco 5 and Cienco 6 could not do anything but cried up for lack of budget.

As of March, 2003, that is almost a year after the construction got started, only some of the preparation works were done, namely, the working path, working field, the abutent M58 on the Ben Tre side. Meanwhile, the space clearing work on the Tien Giang part was still unmoved.

It seemed as if the time of the Project was passing by as quietly as the water of Tien River did.

Turning point

Then, a turning point was made right after a sudden visit to the Project's field sites by the country's Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung early in 2004.

What Mr Dung saw at the field sites had a certain say to the Government. Several changes were made, and pushing acts were taken.

The Government then decided to increase the investment fund from 599.9 billion dongs to 696.5 billion dongs, and raise its share of subsidy up to 40% from 25.8% of the total sum. At the same time, one more partner was also designated to lead the joint venture of Rach Mieu Bridge BOT company the Cienco 1 became the chief investor with a 51% share of the company's 60% of total investment capital.

This immediately resulted in the approval by the country's three largest banks (the Bank of Development and Investment of Viet Nam (BDIV), the Agribank, and the Vietcombank) to lend a hefty sum of 293 billion dongs, or 70% of the company's capital need.

For its part, Ben Tre's Province also decided to advance 100 billion dongs to assist the contractors moving their work forward while waiting for liquidization from the Government and the lending banks.

Ben Tre's act was responded by Tien Giang Province's dramatic move to clear 100% of space on its side, which was also lying in wait for so long.

Rushing

It seemed as if a new vitality was blown in to make the Project sail at its full capacity following the turning point of Mr Dung's visit.

The noisy sounds of pneumatic hammers chugging again on the busy sites of the Project giving onlookers the feeling that everything is on the fast move to shape up the long-awaited bridge. It is now easily seen that all workers on the field sites of the Project are on a rush against time as it is only more than a year to go.

Now, optimists may breathe with relief as 90% of the abutents of the Main No. 1 have so far been concreted, including 34 bridge spans, and 50% of all the super T girders. Now under construction is two suspending posts (the T18 and T19) for the suspension part, each of which is 106 metres high rested on a base supported by 20 pneumatic stakes hammered 88 metres deep down in the ground.

On field sites of the Main No. 2, the situation is the same. Workers are racing to finish 21 abutents and install 15 super T girders before moving on to other jobs. "We have to work night shift in order to make up for idle times. We are not afraid of hard working, as long as the bridge needs to finish, and there are other projects waiting for us in the future", said Mr Trinh Van Thanh, one of the workers at field sites on Ben Tre's side.

More Difficulties to Tackle

Still, there are other difficulties to tackle before the dream is fulfilled. First, budget estimates for the Project were made more than two years ago, in 2003, so now they have to be re-adjust to current market prices trend. Prices for materials and fuel, etc all increase sharply compared to two years ago. That's not to say workers' wages have also to be increased as living prices are increasing, too. These expenses will add up to swell the overall budget of the Project.

Difficulties caused by natural and weather factors are not counted.

Said Mr Dao Dinh Binh, Minister of Transportation, "The above disadvantages can be overcome in case the Project is able to receive more supports from the Government, investors, commercial banks, Ministries and industry leaders as well as leaders of the two directly related provinces of Ben Tre and Tien Giang".

Edited and translated by Truong Hung

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