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Jose Luis Irigoyen: ​China’s experience engaging World Bank in building expressways

Jose Luis Irigoyen is Senior Director, Transport & ICT of World Bank

TansFORM is publishing a series of interviews with senior specialists from the World Bank, looking at China’s rapid development in the transport sector and the role the bank has played over a course of 30 years. They will share their insights on the experience and lessons China has learned.

In building the national express ways system, China had a clear understanding of its economic importance, first linking the east, and then extending the linkage into the west to give the region the same opportunities.

China was challenging our views of what is possible and not possible in a constrainedenvironment. The timetable looked unrealistic in the beginning, yet although there was a steep learning curve, China became capable of doing the things in a very short period of time. The speed at which the country was growing was challenging for the World Bank as well, we had never seen traffic forecast at 40% increase every year, it was hard for us to carry out peer review. But once the projects became operationalized, they bring more confidence for new projects.

To understand why China decided to build expressways when the poverty level was quite high, one has to understand the theory behind the change.China’s expressway system started with planning, prioritizing what parts of the network should be built first. In the early years, the mainattempt was to put the economic backbone of the country in place. Later on, they expanded the network to other areas in order to avoid the lagging regions. The high levels of traffic increase were the result of economic activity, the two came together.

When the expressway was built, some features were tailored to local conditions, for instance, to minimize impacts on agriculture activity, which forced China to build high embankment which inflated the costs. The second element was the issue of road safety, with expressway being built, the speed raised significantly from 30-40 km/hour to 100-120 km/hour. Making sure that the road safety became a top priority from the very beginning.

The Bank teams worked together with China in creating a construction management system that involves a whole cycle from planning, designing, to bidding and then operation and maintenance.We also suggested China looking into road asset management, which was nascent in the country. We also pushed them to do more on rural connectivity, flagging issues like road safety.

In terms of the safeguards, our experience shows that it is not only an integral part of what you do, because it's a World Bank operation, it was embraced as an opportunity to avoid a bill-first-and-then-retrofit-later situation.

How China engaged with the World Bank

China’s experience reflects a careful prioritization of what they want to get done. And they requested the Bank involvement when faced with challenges, not only in expressways, but also in urban transport development, and later in high-speed rail system.

At that time, China was quite smart in terms of structuring the Bank involvement.They were having the bank teams dealing with different government agencies involved with the expressway system, helping them develop the capacities at provincial level. There was also a strong coordination at the national level to prioritize things and to conform with the timetable. Rather than having loans supporting one single project, China distributed the loans among many projects, so more provinces could be involved.

Secondly, China was also creating institutional setups – for instance, the toll road corporations - not only to deal with the operation during the project, but also to maintain them for future use. In this sense, the Bank was really involved in helping China develop a road asset managementsystem. And a third element was building on the assets being crated with Bank loans, there was also innovative operation of raising more fund from other investors to strengthen the revenue base, to bring in additional financing from other sources, and maximizing finance for development.

Yet it is also to be noted that the economic development had taken place during that period in China is very difficult to reproduce in the in other places. Countries will have to learn from the experience of china and adjusted to the local environment to reflect that. And finally, don’t forget to find innovative ways to get things done.