In what appeared to be yet another sweeping gesture to address public concerns, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday announced the cancellation of plans to build a multimillion-dollar expressway leading to the Phnom Penh International Airport, a plan that officials had hoped would reduce mounting traffic jams in the capital.
The premier said the project would not proceed given the difficulties surrounding the expressway’s construction and asked the eight communities opposing the project to stop their protests and withdraw their demands for a public forum on the issue.
“The project had not started, but people were demanding a public forum,” he said. “Now we will not have a public forum because we do not know what to talk about.”
In previous remarks, former transportation minister Tram Iv Tek had said the expressway would drastically reduce travel time to the airport, which was currently hampered by “congested roads”.
And speaking to administration students last year, Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong bemoaned mounting traffic jams and called for more toll roads and expressways, maintaining that traffic jams cost Phnom Penh some $70 million in wasted petrol and lost time every year.
Yesterday’s announcement, made at the inauguration of the new Phnom Penh City Hall building, came after the communities picketed and demanded the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation host a public discussion to air their concerns.
According to a report filed by Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon in late January, three companies had submitted bids to build the road, with China-based Henan Provincial Communications Planning Survey and Design Institute’s 10-kilometre, $260 million proposal winning out.
Lim Sidenin, secretary of state at the Ministry of Public Works who has provided information about the expressway project in the past, said he had yet to hear about the prime minister’s announcement.
The expressway isn’t the first public project the prime minister has cancelled – apparently unilaterally. In the past he has personally announced the cancellation of toll road contracts on Veng Sreng Boulevard and National Road 4, at times characterising the decisions as “gifts” for the people.
In a separate announcement, Hun Sen said the out-of-service railway tracks running north from Phnom Penh’s train station to the Russey Keo district would be removed to make way for a new road that would ease the city’s traffic congestion.
Khuon Sarin, a community representative in Daun Penh district’s Srah Chak commune, said that while she welcomed cancellation of the expressway, the newly announced road would still result in her being displaced.
“But if it is inevitable to build the road and if the development will affect people, they should get the proper compensation based on what the people want,” Sarin said.
Sia Phearum, director of the Housing Right Task Force, said it was good that the prime minister took into account the concerns of the people, and that “it was wrong for him to chase voters out of the their homes”.
Building the proposed expressway, said Ear Chariya, founding director at the Institute for Road Safety, would have resulted in a short-term relief from the city’s traffic problems. Instead, he said, the government should prioritise investments in public transportation, which would in turn reduce congestion, pollution and road fatalities.
“The current public transportation, including railways and the bus system in Phnom Penh, [has] poor design, poor investment and lack of motivation,” he said.
However, not everyone was happy about the expressway’s cancellation. Sonic Duran, a sales and marketing manager at Kerry Worldbridge Logistics, said traffic during peak hours was a hindrance to their services and that a separate expressway would be helpful if was wide enough to transport freight.