Govt Calls for Foreign Investment in ‘Death Highway’ Upgrade

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 29 December 2014

RANGOON — The Ministry of Construction has unveiled plans to seek domestic and foreign investment for an upgrade of the Rangoon-Mandalay highway, a stretch of road known locally as the ‘Death Highway’ for its high incidence of traffic accidents and fatalities.

On Sunday, the ministry called for expressions of interest to be submitted by Jan. 30 for a project to double the width of the highway to eight lanes and improve the road’s support infrastructure. Under the build-operate-transfer proposal, the winning bidder of a future tender will construct and collect tolls on the highway for 30-40 years before ownership is transferred to divisional governments.

“We will evaluate proposals and company backgrounds before we call the tender,” said Kyi Zaw Myint, the highway project’s chief engineer at the Ministry of Construction. “Developers will have not only build the road, but take care of long term maintenance and safety measures, as well as complying with international standards. It is possible that the eventual tender winners will be a foreign company or a joint venture between foreign and local partners.”

According to the ministry, the successful bidder for the upgrade of the 589-kilometer (366-mile) long highway will be responsible for widening the existing four lane asphalt road, laying guardrails, building service roads to nearby villages, and installing CCTV cameras to monitor traffic at toll stations and alert police to speeding drivers.

This is the first time that the Ministry of Construction has invited foreign firms to register interest in domestic road projects. Several local construction companies have built or upgraded major roads under 30-year operating leases requiring long-term maintenance in exchange for a share of toll revenues.

Earlier this year, The US Agency for International Development began providing technical assistance and safety training to the ministry’s staff for future road projects. No other road in the country is in more urgent need of a safety upgrade than the Rangoon-Mandalay highway, which was hastily built in a manner that falls well below international safety standards.

Completed in two tranches, the road connects Rangoon and Mandalay with the capital Naypyidaw. Forced labor was used in the road’s construction, which was also plagued by funding shortfalls and accusations of corruption.

From January this year alone, 147 people have died and 797 have been injured in 408 separate accidents. With the highway’s upgrade, the ministry hopes to avoid repeating the mistakes of the initial project’s rushed construction that have led to the road’s abysmal accident record.

“Safety is a high priority for us,” Kyi Zaw Myint told The Irrawaddy.