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Haiti invests heavily in rebuilding roads

Due to decades of deterioration of Haiti’s road network, the 250-km drive from Port-au-Prince to Cap Haitien, the largest city on the northern coast, can take up to seven hours on RN1, the country’s main highway.

But if the Haitian government’s ambitious plan to improve transportation across the country pays off, the trip could be covered in four hours—about the same time it demanded when RN1 was first paved in the 1960s.

With support from the Inter-American Development Bank, the European Union, the World Bank, France, Canada, Taiwan and other donors, the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation and Communications  (MTPTC) is carrying out more than 100 projects on primary, secondary and tertiary roads—Haiti’s biggest investment in its road network in decades.

Image removed.MTPTC Coordinator Gary Jean.

“We’ve never had so many projects underway at the same time,” said MTPTC coordinator Gary Jean, who estimated that some 10,000 people were directly employed in upgrading roads in all of Haiti’s departments.

Indirectly, these investments in infrastructure were generating more than 70,000 jobs, giving a boost to local economies as road crews require all kinds of services, from food to lodging. Marketplaces sprout wherever projects take place, with stalls offering fruit, eggs, clothes, even small appliances.

Once roadways are refurbished, economic activity can continue to expand, as transportation time and costs are reduced and vehicles suffer less wear and tear. The smoother ride even allows fruits and vegetables to arrive in better conditions to market, where they can fetch better prices.

“Rebuilding roads is a top priority for the Haitian government, since it serves its strategy for regional integration,” said the IDB’s representative in Haiti, Philippe Dewez. “Many communities are still hard to reach by land. Better roads will provide them a link to the rest of the country.”

The renewed emphasis on investing in roads stands in contrast with the deterioration Haiti’s transportation infrastructure suffered in previous years. An inventory taken in 2004 found that only 5 percent of the country’s roads were in good condition. In fact, since 1991 it had actually lost more than 1,000 kilometers of rural roads.

Poor road conditions can have huge economic and social impacts, adding to the cost of transportation and making its more difficult and expensive for people to get to work, schools, hospitals and markets.

For those reasons, the Haitian is determined to repair the country’s road network, with a priority on the routes linking its departments as well as rural roads connecting villages and farms with the secondary road network.

Increasing these investments has become an even more urgent necessity after the devastating tropical storms of 2008 and the spike in oil prices, which affected the cost of all petroleum-based products used in road reconstruction.

An auspicious sign for Haiti is the participation of foreign construction companies in their infrastructure projects. Until a few years ago, political unrest prevented all but a few local firms from bidding for contracts. Since Haitian businesses tend to be small by international standards, they can only take on projects of a limited scope.

Companies like Ingeniería Estrella of the Dominican Republic are now working on RN1. The firm recently had about 200 workers on a project to improve an 80-km stretch from Bon Repos, in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, to the city of Saint Marc.

“In engineering terms, this highway was practically failed, which means that it could no longer be used as it was designed due to its poor conditions,” said Ingeniería Estrella’s project director, Alejandro Adames.

After one year on the job, they were getting ready to repave the roadway, which was broadened from 5.5 meters to 7 meters, adding 1.5 meter shoulders on each side.

Asked about security conditions in Haiti, the Dominican engineer said they were not particularly concerned. “We take no extraordinary precautions. We do hire a few local watchmen, but we leave machinery and materials on the roadside and no one touches them,” he added.

Adames did note the positive comments he heard from local residents. “It’s hard work, 12 hours a day under this scorching sun, but people are happy to see that the project is going forward”.

Local constructor rebuilds

In Haiti’s southern peninsula the IDB is providing $100 million in grants to finance work on RN2, which links Port-au-Prince with the departments of Sud, Grand Anse and Nippes. Although there still was work underway on several stretches, before the 2008 storms the trip from the capital city to the town of Les Cayes took 3.5 hours, down from 6 hours before the rehabilitation project began.

Image removed.Work on a stretch of RN2.

The IDB grants will be complemented with a CAD$75 million contribution from Canada for work on the stretch from Les Cayes to Jeremie, nearly at the end of the peninsula.

One of the main contractors on RN2 is a local firm, Vorbe et Fils, which has seen its fortunes rise, fall and rise again with Haiti’s. The company founded four decades ago grew in its initial years by teaming up on road projects with U.S., French and Italian construction concerns.

But in the 1990s its volume of business shrank 90 percent after an international embargo was set against a military dictatorship. The company started to recover after the return to democracy in 1994, only to suffer another setback during another bout of political turmoil earlier this decade.

But as Haiti stabilized under President René Preval, Vorbe’s capacity to execute projects grew six-fold. The company invested several millions of dollars in new equipment and scrambled to hire more managers and supervisors, to the point where it had to recruit foreigners and Haitian émigrés.

Image removed.(Right to left) Reginald Vorbe, Jean-Luc Vorbe, Willy Adam and Fritz Leger. Mr. Vorbe passed away on December 2008.

“We’ve had growing pains, naturally, but we’re overcoming all kinds of obstacles,” said Reginald Vorbe, the son of the company’s founder, adding that in 2009 their company might be able to bid for projects in the $30 million to $35 million range. Asked if he was worried about foreign competition, Vorbe said firms from abroad usually bid on larger contracts. “Maybe in five years, when we can take on $80 million projects, I’ll start to complain.”

The company had some 300 people working on repaving stretches of RN2. When they had to carry out more labor-intensive tasks, such as digging drainage ditches or filling shoulders with gravel, the payroll could rise to as many as 1,500 laborers, providing much-needed jobs in the areas where projects take place.

Drainage and maintenance

In many countries, highways are typically worn out by overloaded trucks. In Haiti, poor drainage is the road network’s worst enemy, according principal adviser to the Minister of Public Works, Viviane Saint Dic.

Image removed.Road maintenance is a persistent problem for Haiti.

Every year tropical storms wash down the country’s naked mountainsides, dragging gravel onto roads. Vehicles drive over the stones, pocking the pavement. Water then seeps into the cracks, which can quickly become potholes if not properly patched. That is why regular inspections and maintenance work are essential for conserving the road network in good shape, added Saint Dic.

Contractors are responsible for the upkeep of improved roads for one year after they complete projects. After that they become the responsibility of the FER road maintenance fund, which is run by the MTPTC.

Like many countries, Haiti has a special tax on vehicle fuel sales to finance road maintenance. However, the one gourde per gallon surcharge (about 2.5 U.S. cents) has not changed since the Haitian parliament set it in 2000. Back then gasoil was 30 gourdes a gallon; by 2009 it cost 140 gourdes a gallon. The surcharge raises only about $3 million a year, forcing the government to resort to several excise taxes to provide $20 million more for FER’s coffers.

As part of Haiti’s efforts to generate more jobs and income opportunities at the local level through public sector spending, the MTPTC uses small firms and microenterprises to carry out basic road maintenance work, trimming roadside vegetation and keeping drainage ditches clean of debris.

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