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China Harbour Engineering Company: Building a better Jamaica

China Harbour to play major role in revitalising Jamaica's infrastructure

BY AL EDWARDS

Friday, September 02, 2011    

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ENGINEERING powerhouse China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), a subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), will be the technical and construction brains behind the much vaunted Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme (JDIP), intended to be the catalyst behind the revitalisation of the country's roadworks and bridges. This programme will play a significant part in the country's economic development and should create many new jobs.

CHEC has already set up offices in New Kingston's Courtleigh Centre and has begun assiduously to go about the task at hand. The JDIP is a five-year public works programme funded by a loan of J$36 billion (US$400 million) secured by the Road Maintenance Fund from the Export/Import Bank of China at an interest rate of three per cent to be repaid over 20 years. The programme will be financed via a fuel cess imposed by the government of Jamaica. According to CHEC, The Export/Import Bank of China is happy with the measures proposed by the Government of Jamaica for repayment of this loan. CHEC has 31 overseas offices and projects in 70 countries valued at US$9.5 billion, employing 6,000 people. Last year it posted revenue turnover of US$2.3 billion which produced a profit of US$200 million. At this point in time CHEC has two programmes under implementation in Jamaica. Both programmes began in 2010 and after almost a year are moving ahead of schedule.

Speaking with Caribbean Business Report from CHEC's offices in New Kingston, Regional Director Zhongdong Tang said: "We are looking for other opportunities that can bring benefits to Jamaica. We have expressed an interest in constructing a highway from Spanish Town to Ocho Rios which in effect will form a South/North link. Jamaica does need to provide quick and safe transportation to the two ends of the country. We have already begun negotiations with government agencies on this project and sent the government a proposal and I am sure that we will be able to reach some sort of agreement. We can also help to contribute to Jamaica's development by constructing a number of hotels in the resort areas and by putting up sea poles in Kingston Harbour," declared Tang.

Highway 2000 / The Mount Rosser Bypass

A decade ago, French civil engineering giant Bouygues Travaux Publics undertook the construction of Highway 2000, the most ambitious roadworks programme ever undertaken in the country. However, financing problems saw Bouygues walk away from the project and it also cited technical difficulties with the Mount Rosser Bypass. There is already a US$50-million overrun on this leg of the Highway.

Speaking on this matter earlier this year, Finance Minister Audley Shaw said: "Imagine the consequence of the overruns we have already faced on that project which is quite significant. It is somewhere between US$30 million and US$50 million that we will have to find and yet we can't drive on that road as yet. What we are now looking at is the lack of financing being in place to connect Spanish Town to Mount Rosser and Ewarton to Ocho Rios."

Construction on the Mount Rosser section of Highway 2000 was initially projected to cost US$99 million but was revised to US$125 million in 2009 with geological problems in Mulloch near the St Catherine/St Ann border pushing that figure even higher. So what can CHEC bring to this beleaguered project that Bouygues could not?

"We have considerable experience in road and bridge works going back many years. We have a construction and engineering team that has carved out a stellar reputation for design and construction. For this highway between Spanish Town and Ocho Rios, construction began in 2007 and up to now there have been many technical problems which cannot be solved between the Jamaican government and Bouygues. As a result we have been invited by the government to submit a proposal. We think we can provide a favourable solution and get this project completed on a timely basis. In January we signed an MOU to complete five kilometre of the highway but it is very technical as we have to contend with mud slides. We have found a technical solution that will make Mount Rosser operational. From design to completion should take us about a year. If we can get an agreement we can break ground by this November. The designs are ongoing and are being done by the American company AECOM. The project is estimated to cost between US$60 to US$70 million."

One of the problems with Jamaican roadworks is that continual patchwork is always in motion with an inability to embark on more fundamental structural works that will last for decades to come. Most roads are not macadamised so water remains on the surface, thus leading to erosion and numerous potholes. How will CHEC address this?

"Our investigations reveal that there is very little drainage of Jamaican roads. Also the top structure is too thin and the materials used are inadequate. We have indicated to the Jamaican government that the quality has to be guaranteed. This will make road repair less expensive in Jamaica and reduce the perpetual patching of the roads. Quality control is desperately needed. We will be working on the road infrastructure in conjunction with engineers from the National Works Agency (NWA). The JDIP will improve the roads and make them more durable. Jamaican roads will be better than they have ever been before. The programme will endure for about four years but we may well be here for an additional five years after that," said Tang.

Jamaica is CHEC's regional hub and from here it oversees projects across 14 countries in the region.

The Palisadoes Road

For decades rising sea levels have threatened the viability of the Palisadoes Road which leads to the city's main airport, The Norman Manley International Airport. According to the Marine Geology Unit of the University of the West Indies, the integrity of this causeway is threatened firstly by fears of the effects of future storms like Ivan blocking or even cutting the road and thus preventing access. Secondly, is the prospect of flooding and submergence due to rising sea levels. A paper written by the University of the West Indies entitled, "The Palisadoes: Safe Access to the Airport? reads: "The active beaches along the south side of Palisadoes will probably cope with rising sea level because they are supplied with new sediment from the rivers to the east. However, excessive sand and gravel extraction from the river beds could rob the beaches of part of their source of sediment, so there is the possibility that such supplies will not be available in sufficient quantities to maintain the integrity of the Palisadoes in the future. Well-designed protective measures, applied to the Palisadoes on the ocean side will certainly diminish or even prevent overwash events and erosion from hurricanes, with the accompanying deposition of junk on the airport highway although they probably would not be able to cope with a significant tsunami event.

"The same cannot be said for man-made structures, such as the highway surface itself. No amount of protection of the shoreline will stop flooding of the highway by rising sea level, or even temporarily by storm surge. The surface of the Palisadoes Road in some places is already at sea level during times of spring tides. With future sea level rise, flooding will become more frequent. A rise of 10 centimetres in 20 years may not seem much, but it will leave the existing road permanently flooded in some places. Without raising the present level of the road surface the frequency of flooding of the road to the airport cannot but increase."

CHEC will be looking to remedy this problem by constructing a two-lane highway and not a four-lane one as is constantly erroneously reported. The Chinese engineering company will endeavour to lift the Palisadoes Road 80 feet higher (2.4 metres), construct a boardwalk which can accommodate jogging and an entertainment facility. The US$65.7-million project is primarily being financed by the China Exim Bank which is providing US$55.8 million or 85 per cent of the amount. The Jamaican government is providing the remaining 15 per cent.

Speaking about the Palisadoes Road project Tang explained: "Here we want to create the maximum benefit to the local community, its residents and people using the airport. A local contractor will also be working on this project and it should provide many jobs for Jamaicans, particularly those living in the surrounding areas. Eighty per cent of the cost of the project is earmarked for materials, and the intention is to purchase as much as possible locally. This project should be completed by August of next year."

Rio Grande

CHEC is renowned for the construction of bridges and it will be bringing its considerable expertise to the Rio Grande bridge in Portland. The Rio Grande Bridge Project is the largest to be undertaken by CHEC under the JDIP. Here the task is to build a new 213-metre two-lane bridge. On this project, CHEC is facing challenges concerning the availability of equipment and tools. For this job it has brought over its own team of workers from China. Tang is happy to report that CHEC is ahead of schedule and despite the challenges the project is proceeding in an orderly fashion. The Rio Grande project is scheduled to be completed by October of next year and should come in at a cost of US$28 million.

Tang added: "Our team from China is working day and night on this project, seven days a week. That is the way we work in order to get the job done. We do not demand that Jamaican workers do the same."

The region

This intrepid construction company has set up a Latin America subsidiary which includes the Caribbean. CHEC Latin America began operations in the region in 2002 with its first project in Panama. Today it has offices and projects in Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Panama and Jamaica. Closer to home CHEC has also landed projects in the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands.

In November 2002 it undertook the Port of Balboa Container Terminal Development Phase 3 in Panama which was completed in two years at a cost of US$102.5 million. This involved the design and construction of a Design and Construct 272m x 48M quay deck with piled foundation, 1.1 million cubic metres dredging for the reclamation and basin area and reclamation of 7.5ha constructing 200mm of retaining structure.

Three years later it worked on the Energia Costa Azul LNG Terminal in Mexico which involved the Design and Construction of the 660m long breakwater, 25m deep in water 500m offshore. Dredging work included maintenance dredging work in Coatzacoalcos Port and channel straightening works for Topolobampo Port. This project cost US$161.3 million.

In June of this year, the Prime Minister of the Cayman Islands signed an agreement with CHEC that sees the Chinese company building a cruise ship port in the capital of George Town. It will also be partaking in sea port construction work in The Bahamas. That contract is earmarked to begin in December of this year. CHEC has a team in Buenos Aires currently looking for other opportunities in Argentina. It is also scouting for contracts in Brazil and Guyana.

"We are actively seeking opportunities in this region and hopefully we can play a role in its infrastructural development. Jamaica is our regional hub and we feel very comfortable here.

The Chinese work ethic

The Chinese are well known for their work ethic and with CHEC likely to be in Jamaica for about a decade it is hoped that some of it will rub off on Jamaican workers engaging on projects involving CHEC. Can Tang foresee this happening?

He chuckles heartily: "Hopefully that can happen but we do not demand this from Jamaican workers, after all we come from two distinct cultures. Let us not forget that Jamaican workers are here at home and have their families to take care of. They also have many issues to tackle. Our guys are far from home and live in a camp. Their main task is to work and complete the job. So you see, it is different conditions."

The regional boss added that CHEC has plans to invite Jamaicans to join its training programmes. Right now most of the programmes are for engineers but Tang would like to create programmes for other skilled and unskilled construction workers. "This will allow many Jamaican workers to learn some skill. We are in the process of contacting all the training agencies in Jamaica, particularly HEART.

"We see a time where young Jamaican engineers can come and work in China and on other CHEC projects throughout the world. On the other hand we can send our engineers to work on Jamaican projects and learn how you do things and learn a little more about your construction culture," declared Tang.

Turning his attention to what Jamaica can expect from CHEC, its man here said that it was selected by the government to undertake these two projects and it will be doing so to the best of its considerable abilities. Its intention is to put in place engineering feats that will stand the test of time.

"We have been doing engineering construction projects around the world for nearly 30 years and this is what we bring to Jamaica. We have the know-how and can help the local communities," said Tang.

How long will CHEC roads last in Jamaica?

Most of Jamaica's roads were constructed by the British and many have stood the test of time. Successive governments have failed to implement a comprehensive roadworks programme and simply end up patching up roadways, particularly during election time. In effect these patch jobs are temporary measures and the process is repeated ad infinitum. The question is how will the government address its infrastructure problems in the 21st century? Will CHEC be able to reverse this idiotic habit which sees many roads in a permanent state of disrepair? Will these CHEC roadworks last for generations to come?

"We cannot expect these roads to last for generations, but I can guarantee that the Rio Grande project and the one in Christiana will always be there. Repairing these roads will not see them lasting for 50 years, more like 15 to 20 years, no problem. After that they will need repair, particularly when you use asphalt for the top surface. The important matter here is the quality of the construction and the design requirement. If the design life is for 50 years there is no guarantee that it will last 70 years. But I must say for roadworks you don't need a design life of 50 years."

Speaking with Caribbean Business Report from Boston, Emory Hatcher, a road engineer with Jacobs Engineering who was a senior consultant with the Clark Group said: "Bituminous roads require regular routine maintenance and periodic maintenance normally at five-year intervals. Cement concrete roads require only routine maintenance and these generally have a design life of 20 years. The maintenance cost of cement concrete roads is less compared to tar roads. The cost of construction of cement concrete roads with conventional method is normally 30 to 50 per cent more than the cost of conventional bituminous roads.

"Asphalt roads wear more than concrete roads, but many countries are replacing concrete roads with asphalt because it is cheaper, despite concrete roads having some advantages. These advantages tend to be their durability, and they are can be maintenance-free. Some concrete roads can last 40 years. Vehicles that run over a concrete road, consume 15 to 20 per cent less fuel than those on asphalt roads. Concrete roads tend to be resistant to automobile fuel spillage and extreme weather. On the other hand, the paving cost of concrete roads is higher than that of asphalt roads. If a concrete road breaks, the entire concrete slab needs to be replaced. The advantages with asphalt roads are that they are economical and are recyclable, not to mention they are easy to maintain."

Jacobs Engineering is a publicly traded company with annual revenues exceeding US$11 billion with more than 46,000 employees and more than 160 offices in more than 20 countries.

Tang continued, "Cement concrete roads tend to last longer than those with asphalt top surfaces. The base and sub-base if well constructed can last for many years, perhaps 50, years but it is the top surface that more often than not requires repair. A good public transportation system can help preserve the longevity of the roads. Overloading damages the top surface and we are having this problem in China. We are now using cement for the top surface which helps to preserve the roads and also assists in withstanding overloading. In Jamaica, asphalt is normally used and this means that the top surface is always coming under pressure."

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