Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Monday ordered the temporary closure of a controversial tollbooth in the country's southern Tien Giang province following protests by drivers who say its location is unfair and that the fees it collects for an opaque road project are too high.
Phuc ordered the month-long suspension following an urgent meeting to address public anger over the tollbooth with the Ministry of Transportation and the chairman of the People's Committee of Tien Giang, saying the station's operations required further review.
The tollbooth collects fees from drivers to finance a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) route bypassing Cai Lay city along National Highway 1 under a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) scheme, in which developers keep all revenues from a project for a designated period of time before transferring ownership to the government.
Drivers have expressed their opposition to the tollbooth since it opened in August by paying the fees in either extremely small or large denominations, and causing the booth to open its gates repeatedly to alleviate traffic that had built up while operators attempted to make change.
In late August, fees were reduced from 35,000-180,000 dong (U.S. $1.54-7.92) to 25,000-140,000 dong (U.S. $1.10-6.10), but the decrease did little to appease drivers, and protests led to a three-month suspension of operations that ended on Nov. 30.
Drivers continued to resist through the weekend--in some cases getting into confrontations with toll operators and requiring cranes to remove their vehicles--causing the station to open its gates as many as 20 times a day to free up traffic, and prompting Phuc's decision to shut it down.
Prior to the meeting, a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security had called on local police to investigate and gather information about anyone "inciting public disorder" at BOT tollbooths, including Cai Lay station.
One driver, who spoke to RFA's Vietnamese Service on condition of anonymity, said that after protests began when the station was reopened, police stripped a truck operator named Phuong Tour of his license.
"They told him to get in his car and move on but he refused to go, explaining that he couldn't drive without a license," the driver said.
"The police then arrested him and brought him to Cai Lay police station. After that, other drivers went to the station to demand his release. He was freed at around 11:00 p.m."
The driver said that while the Cai Lay tollbooth fees were reduced in August, "they're still very high," adding that "what we really are protesting against is the location of the station."
Drivers have said that the tollbooth should be placed on the new bypass, rather than the existing highway.
Lack of consultation, transparency
Other sources told RFA that anger over the tollbooth stemmed in part from a lack of consultation with the public before it was approved and the project's lack of transparency.
"I can say that there are groups who have an interest in this BOT project and there must have been a 'fee' paid to the people who allowed the station to be built on such a wrong location," said Pham Sy Liem, Vietnam's former deputy minister of construction.
"To prevent this, the project should have been transparent and the people should have been consulted about it before it was started. They decided about this project on their own, ignoring what the people said, and whoever opened their mouth about it was called stupid and insolent."
Nguyen Quang A, a civil society activist based in the capital Hanoi, said that "none of the BOT projects in Vietnam are transparent," creating what he called "a hotbed of corruption" for local officials and their cronies.
"The only way to stop this is to be transparent about everything, including how much is spent on the project, the details of the contract between the investors and the government, and the ability of the public to have input on how it proceeds."
Tran Quoc Thuan, the former deputy director for the Office of the National Assembly--Vietnam's rubber stamp parliament--noted that according to the law, it is not mandatory for the developers to consult with the public about state-level projects.
"However, it's still very regrettable that they didn't do so," he said.
"They actually did discuss the project with the local government, but the authorities didn't do their duty [to assess it] and simply approved it.
Social observer Nguyen Thi Hau called consultation with local communities "essential" for a project the size of the bypass and highway upgrade near Cai Lay.
"But hardly any [government] bodies do it, or take it seriously," he said.
"As far as I know, in the case of BOT projects like this one, there is no public consultation with the local community or those who are most affected, such as transportation businesses that use BOT roads."
Tran Van Linh, a former member of the People's Council in Da Nang--Vietnam's third-largest city--said the government should only build BOT roads that are "truly beneficial to the people," and provide alternatives in case drivers do not want to use them, adding that the scheme requires better oversight.
"It is important to strictly control the BOT to determine whether they actually disburse the reported funds, or if they are being exaggerated," Linh said.
"Also, there should be strict control over their [toll] revenues so that they only receive the amount of interest allowed by the government," he added.
"I suggest that an automatic toll collection system be used to avoid non-transparency."
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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