ASIAN HIGHWAY NETWORK GATHERS SPEED
By Raja M
June 21, 2006
- More pieces of the ambitious 141,204-kilometer Asian Highway
network slotted into place this month as Vietnam completed its section
linking Vietnam, Laos,
Thailand and Myanmar.
Do Ngoc Dung, vice director general of the My Thuan Project Management Unit (PMU), announced completion of the work. The US$144.77
million construction bill was partly financed by the Asian Development Bank.
The $44 billion Asian Highway network
weaves through 32 countries, connects Asia with Europe, and promises to boost regional economies
by facilitating trade and tourism through its linkage of Asian seaports, airports and major tourist destinations. It also
fleshes out dreams of a Pan-Asian community with a common socio-political-economic identity analogous to the European Union.
"There is a 12-20% [increase in the growth of gross domestic product associated with greater investment in highways
in India," said A Veeraragavan, a professor
with the leading Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and one of the country's top experts in highway engineering. "The GDP
growth rate may vary from Asian country to country, but the bottom line is [there are] more advantages with better highways, from saving lives lost in traffic accidents to economic benefits."
The Asian Highway is becoming the latest element of a growing highway economy worldwide,
in which highways are increasingly operated as for-profit assets.
"In the US, foreign investors are increasingly interested in taking over the existing [3,200km
of] toll roads," reports the UK-based World Highways magazine in its June issue. Debate was aroused over privatizing highways
when the Spanish-Australian consortium Macquarie Infrastructure-Cintra struck a $1.8 billion, 99-year leasing deal for the
Chicago Skyway, and then a $3.85 billion contract for the 252km Indiana Toll
Privatization is more common in Western European toll roads - examples can be found
in Italy, France and other countries - and Asia is not too far away, with countries such as China and India working on public-private
partnerships to develop road infrastructure. According to a US Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) study, project costs
average $675 million in Asia and the Far East compared with $690 million in Europe. India is expected to need $50 billion to $60 billion of public
and private investment over the next five years for road infrastructure.
Conceived in 1959, the Asian Highway took off with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) promoting it more ardently in the past two decades. A big breakthrough
came in April 2004 when 23 Asian countries signed the Asian Highway
agreement in the 60th session of UNESCAP at Shanghai.
agreement, active since last July 4, finalized the route map across Asia and established basic technical standards for roads
and route signs along the Highway, such as using the initials "AH" suffixed with number codes for regions and sub-regions.
So the single-digit route numbers 1 to 9 are for Asian Highway
routes that substantially cross more than one sub-region. The route numbers 40-59 and 400-599 are for South Asian countries,
while the route numbers 10-29 and 100-299 are reserved for Southeast Asia.
economies such as that of Thailand are expected to benefit hugely from
this 21st-century Silk Route through Asia.
A total of 5,111km of the AH network runs through Thailand.
China accounts for 25,579km of the planned route, while India - with the world's second-longest road network (3.3 million
kilometers) after the US - has 11,432km of its total 65,570km of highway designated part of the AH.
environmental issues in highway development are being balanced with economic benefits. Growing economies need better road
connectivity, with highway bottlenecks even in a developed economy such as the US
costing that country $7.8 billion annually.
An FHWA research study showed the difference opening a single bridge can
make: "In the two-year period during which the a new bridge [in Laredo,
Texas] was opened for traffic, over 4,000 new jobs were added to an area with
above the national average in employment," said the study. "The job gains were enough to send the Laredo
employment rate up at the same time the employment rate was declining in Texas and the US as a whole."
Despite occasional political speed
bumps (such as Bangladesh opting out of the Asian Highway, because of fears of giving India
connectivity through its territory), the AH has a 2010 deadline. Though the project has yet to be promoted substantially among
the Asian public, project officials say international traffic has, in fact, increased along the AH routes.
has pushed regional governments to invest in infrastructure, such as in April 2002 when India,
Myanmar and Thailand
agreed to develop a linking road network. In 2005, the National Highways Authority of India launched the $12.54 billion Phase
3 of the National Highways Development Project, which aims to upgrade 10,000km of the country's busiest highways to four-lane
The Asian Highway is also sustaining
focus on more critical issues. Last month, UNESCAP called a meeting in Bangkok
on financing highway infrastructure and improving road safety. According to the UN body, by 2020 about two-thirds of the world's
road-accident deaths (or 610,000 per annum) might be in the Asia-Pacific region. This implies 440,000 deaths and more than
2 million injuries incurred in road accidents in the region, registering economic costs of 1-3% of the GDP of UNESCAP countries,
in addition to the pain and suffering of the individuals involved.
"Over 100,000 people die of road accidents in India [annually]," Veeraragavan said, adding that more than
3,000 "die daily in road accidents worldwide". He dismisses ecological concerns over developing highways, saying trees can
be planted in other places than by roadsides, "which only cause more accidents. In Emperor Ashoka's time people had to walk
to travel across the country and so shade-giving trees by roads [were] useful. Now even tribals use transport." (Ashoka the
Great was emperor of the Maurya Empire, which extended over most of South Asia from 273-232
A total of $26 billion has already been invested in the Asian Highway
and $18 billion more is needed, says UNESCAP. Eighty-three percent of the network is considered ready, but more issues need
to be addressed, such as traffic-friendly customs procedures across borders, and the degree of freedom that foreign vehicles
driving through Asia have to move about within individual countries.
Part of the transportation
"triad" launched by the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development project - along with the Trans-Asian Railway and various
forms of land-transport facilitation, such as intermodal hubs - the young Asian
Highway system has the potential to have a socio-economic significance in this century that equals
or surpasses what the historic Silk Route had in ancient