There is one thought that comes most often to An Baowen, a truck driver from Rizhao, Shan-dong Province, whenever he gets stuck in traffic on the Beijing-Shanghai highway. Why are there no other routes that his truck can be diverted to, allowing him to deliver products to his clients quicker and thus giving him more business?
An's situation is not even that bad when compared to that of other truck drivers. Some of his colleagues traveling on the Beijing-Tibet highway sometimes find themselves stuck on the road for days on end with no way out.
In August 2010, traffic on the Beijing-Tibet highway was paralyzed for more than 20 days in Hebei Province and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region when the number of trucks transporting coal far exceeded the highway's capacity.
"It was a nightmare for our colleagues who were transporting coal from Inner Mongolia and Shanxi to Beijing because the traffic on the highway was horrible," An said. "They wasted lots of time in the traffic, and only a few of them want to drive on the highway now."
The road ahead
Drivers' demands for more highways to ease traffic jams could be realized in the next few years, when the country expands infrastructure development under the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15).
The plan will see the construction of a network of highways that will serve virtually the entire population of China by 2020. While analysts say the move is impressive, they have also raised concerns over whether such an extensive network is actually necessary.
Minister of Transport Li Shenglin predicted at a conference Tuesday that the country's total length of highway will surpass that of the US during the 12th Five-Year Plan.
China's total highway length increased from 41,000 kilometers to 74,000 kilome-ters during the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10).
According to a highway network development plan issued by the State Council, authorities will construct seven highways starting from Beijing, nine highways ranging from the north to the south of the country, and 18 highways spanning east and west.
Construction on other infrastructure projects, including ports and airports, will also see a rapid increase in the next five years. Civil airports will cover 80 percent of county-level cities and the population by 2015.
Construction of the traffic network will be carried out gradually during the 12th Five- Year Plan period, said Li.
Authorities invested more than 4.7 trillion yuan ($713 billion) in the construction of land and marine traffic infrastructure under the 11th Five Year Plan (2006-10), and the scale and speed of construction will be continued in the next five years, Li said.
Value for money?
However, the plan to rapidly develop the country's highway network has also drawn controversy, as the high costs of construction will be difficult to recover in the short term, especially in western rural areas.
Some experts have even written to the central government over the rapid development of highway construction, expressing concern that the low traffic flow in the central and western areas will bring little return on the investment, according to a report in the China Youth Daily.
Each mile of highway will require 1,000 tons of iron and steel, 9,000 tons of cement, and 1,900 tons of pitch to construct, said the report.
However, many are convinced that there are economic benefits to be made by developing the country's highways. For every 100 million yuan ($15 million) invested in highways
Zeng Peiyan, former vice premier who was in charge of industrial development, said in his book published in March that the development of the western region was go-ing faster than expected, and if infrastructure construction was not advanced enough, it would be difficult to meet the demands of the future.
"Take Xianyang airport as an example. The local authorities used to be questioned for expanding the scale of the airport from a 2-million-passenger flow to 7-million, but when the project was finished, the passenger flow had increased to more than 7 million," Zeng said.
Li Guoli, an employee at the China Communication Construction Company, a State-owned enterprise behind the construction of a number of ports, highways, and railway projects, told the Global Times that transport conditions in the western region were far behind the needs of economic development.
"There are many places in the western region that still do not have highways, which makes it more difficult for the local people to travel," Li said. "For example, there is no highway between Changzhi and Linfen, the coalmine city, which puts a lot of pressure on coal transportation."
Li said that highway construction projects are increasing so rapidly that most of the projects taken on by State-owned enterprises have to be contracted to private companies.
Li said that although it would be impossible to see a return on investment in many western cities' highway projects anytime soon, construction will still be carried out. "The western regions need highways to make travel easier, or it would be impossible for people there to get out of poverty," Li said.
"In the short term, it might be difficult to make profits, but profits are not