Highway in a bigger mess than in the days of Hiram's

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 12:00am

THE ROAD TO Sai Kung has never been wonderful. Hiram's Highway was hacked out of the hillside by labour gangs of Japanese prisoners of war. It got its name because the young British officer in charge of the project was addicted to a brand of American canned sausages labelled Hiram's. Weird, but true.

Today, the road is a bigger mess than when prisoners toted loads of earth in bamboo baskets. The Highways Department has been improving things. As often is the case, this has spelled chaos and delay.

Under a $138.9 million contract for work on the short haul between the villages of Nam Wai and Ho Chung, the road was to be straightened. A key part of this work was a bridge due to open this month. Because hairline cracks and other faults were discovered in the structure, the bridge will not open for months, until remedial work is done.

This situation will surprise few New Territories motorists. Lengthy delays on road construction seems the norm. One notorious highway construction disaster was on a key road that links Tseung Kwan O with Clear Water Bay. Here, the Government revoked a $120 million contract and expelled the mainland construction company from the site. The work was scheduled to finish in 1998. It's still going on, to the fuming anger of residents.

In the case of Hiram's Highway, a contract was awarded in March, 1999. The firm of Babtie Asia was appointed as engineer responsible for construction supervision under a design and construction consultancy administered by the Highways Department. (Numerous efforts to contact the management of Babtie Asia by phone and fax proved fruitless. They decline to comment.)

The department claims that Babtie noticed and reported 'deformation' of bearings and hairline cracks in the bridge in June last year. A team of government engineers deployed to monitor quality and progress of work found the cracks. Just who reported the faults is unclear.

'The Government has adequate control on large projects,' I am assured by a Highways Department spokesman. Oh, yes? Whoever discovered the cracks, the department told Babtie to investigate and propose remedies. That took three months. In September, the company reported the cracks were minor and would not cause permanent damage. Later, they suggested remedial work.

The department is still awaiting a full report and a programme for remedial works. When it gets this, it will examine and approve it. This work of fixing the problem will delay the project a further 'three or four months'.

The president of the Hong Kong Automobile Association, Jackson Ho Yee-tak, calls for tightened government supervision on roadworks, especially those delayed because of quality problems. 'The department has got to find why this happened,' he says.

But lengthy delays are still experienced in roadworks, particularly in the New Territories. Do contractors enter implausible completion dates when tendering so they can get the job, then end up hopelessly compromised when they can't finish on time?

Ironically, the hapless Highways Department has created a situation which is partly responsible for its torment. At every roadworks, there are notices which prominently display the scheduled completion dates. These are constant reminders to motorists stuck in traffic jams that promised dates have been broken and work is late.

There are numerous signs along Hiram's Highway, for example, that motorists can contemplate as they think about a bridge that has to be repaired before it is ever used.

Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong-based journalist