Independent citizens in Vietnam are camping out near toll booths to count cars in an effort to determine the extent of suspected toll fraud taking place at several Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) infrastructure projects.
Under the BOT model, investors transfer the projects to the state after building and operating them for a certain amount of time.
The VTC News Network reported on March 2 that a group of citizens in south-central Khanh Hoa province set up camp near the Ninh Loc toll booth and counted vehicles near the booth between February 26 and March 4.
In an interview with RFA’s Vietnamese Service, Nguyen Minh Hung, a representative of the group, said that the vehicle counting effort is to boost transparency.
“Frauds in fee collection have been detected at the Ho Chi Minh City – Trung Luong Expressway Toll Station and at the Long Thanh – Dau Giay booth,” said Nguyen.
The latter booth was the site of a robbery in early February in which two former employees made off with VND 2.2 billion ($95,000) but were arrested hours later.
“People suspect that the toll stations are falsifying their collection records and are not transparent. My house is near here so I joined in to help check whether the reported collection figures are right or not,” he said.
Nguyen said the group found some numbers that need explanation.
“The Ninh Loc BOT toll station said that it invested VND 1.437 trillion [about $62 million] and expected that they would collect tolls for 14 years and 5 months,” he said, adding, “But for some reason they changed these figures, saying they invested VND 2.644 trillion [about $114 million] and would need to collect tolls for 21 years 8 months and 16 days.”
“As traffic volume increases each year, the amount of time they need to collect tolls should shorten, but it increases. Why? People are afraid the operator is not being transparent, so that’s why we are out here counting cars,” said Nguyen.
The director of Vietnam’s General Department of Road Administration told reporters Sunday that his agency is aware that citizens groups are keeping tabs on the numbers.
He said the car counters have not interfered with toll collection, but warned that if the counters engage in any disruptive behavior that prevents collection or causes disorder, the department would ask the police to intervene.
Despite not breaking any laws, Nguyen’s group has had scrapes with the authorities over their efforts to monitor the toll booth.
“At first we set up near Ninh Loc BOT station, then the local authorities requested that we dismantle our camp because we were on public land. So we moved to land owned by one of our members.”
Nguyen said that the data the group is compiling cannot be published because it will be sent to the Ministry of Transport, the State Audit and the Government Inspectorate.
The toll booths are currently manned, but the government has been pushing for an electronic toll collection system. Nguyen said this was a good idea.
“It has certain advantages,” he said. “Vehicles can pass through faster so there will be fewer traffic jams, and it will also be much more transparent,” said Nguyen.
Electronic toll collection legislation has already passed in Vietnam’s National Assembly. According to the road administration department the system will be implemented on all highways by the end of this year.
“I think [electronic toll collection] is reasonable,” said Dr. Le Dang Doanh, an economist.
“If any vehicle passes through a toll booth and pays the fee, the supervisory agency will be directly notified. That’s probably in line with international practices,” he said.
But Nguyen warned that while electronic toll collection is more transparent than manned booths, it is not absolutely transparent.
“Cheaters can find a way past anything, just like at the booths in Ho Chi Minh City’s Trung Luong Station, where they’re already collecting tolls this way,” said Nguyen.
“Five have been prosecuted for using software to hack into the system,” he said.
On Tuesday, Nguyen revealed to RFA that the citizens group’s efforts were put on hold as seven days of records were stolen. He said the group would consider using cameras to count vehicles instead of doing it by hand.
By Thursday counting had not been resumed.
Investors in the Ninh Loc BOT toll Station Friday called on the central government to ask the Ministry of Public Security to prevent possible disruptions to social order and robberies at the station.
In related news, Ha Van Nam, a BOT-protesting driver from Hanoi, was arrested on Tuesday.
The online newspaper VNExpress said that he and 6 other drivers who had joined a protest at Pha Lai BOT Station were arrested for “disrupting social order.”
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Eugene Whong.