The lowdown. Concrete bridge piers reach up to 100 meters above the valley floor. floor

A half-century after the U.S. put its Interstate highway system in place, China is building its own national road network. Within a decade, central planners expect to have a world class transport system to move goods and people safely between urban centers at speeds of 60 to 100 kilometers per hour. For construction, there are no speed limits. Roadbuilders are putting the pedal to the medal in a rush to pave the way for a rapidly expanding vehicular base. A decade of gross domestic production expansion at an annual rate of more than 9% is revving up the auto industry. Within the next three years automobile capacity is expected to double, to 4.7 million units per year, according to Credit Suisse First Boston. Japanese and U.S. auto manufacturers are building plants in China, partially for export. But they have long coveted the domestic market.

Expressway Facts

  • Owner: Guizhou Expressway Development Corp.
  • CM/PM: Halcrow International Ltd.
  • Length: 118 km, through Dalhousan Mts.
  • Cost (est.): $827 million, with 24% loan from Asia Development Bank.
  • Bridges: 121, 22% total length (25.6 km).
  • Tunnels: 17, 16% total length (19.2 km). Liangfenya tunnel is 4,107 m.
  • Design speed: 60 km/h northern section; 80 km/h southern section.
  • Resettlement: 2,134 families from 42 areas.
Source: GECD/Halcrow

Although Chinese cities now sport world-class traffic jams, bicycles and motorbikes are still more commonly used for transport. But China’s rising standard of living and the government’s relaxing of restrictions on freedom of movement are boosting the market’s already great potential. There are only 6.7 cars per 1,000 people in China, according to The Economist 2005 World in Figures. U.S. ownership, by contrast, is 481 cars per 1,000 people.
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Recognizing the need to improve its transportation network, the central government began working with multilateral lenders in 1991 to plan the National Trunk Highway System. The network of interprovincial high-speed roadways includes five north-south routes and seven east-west routes. Each section has its own challenges, but the most difficult in terms of construction is the Chongzun Expressway, a 118-kilometer-long section through the razorbacked Dalhousan Mountains and valleys of northern Guizhou province. The road heads north from the provincial capital of Guiyang, toward Chongqing, a recently created political municipality boasting a population of 42 million. The next link will connect Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, and its population of 30 million people.

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Li Bai, a Tang Dynasty poet regarded as China’s Shakespeare, wrote that "It is easier to climb to heaven than to take the Sichuan road." Until the Chongzun Expressway replaces the existing road, the statement will be as apt as it was thirteen centuries ago, especially the northernmost portion between the Guizhouan towns of Chongxihe and Zunyi.

The latter, close to the Sichuan border, once provided a haven for Mao Zedong. After being chased from eastern China, the communist guerrillas regrouped in the remote region in 1935 during the low point of the Long March. There, Mao consolidated power and emerged as the undisputed leader of insurgents that gained support from ru-ral peasants. The movement gained strength and Mao eventually united the country under communist rule in 1949.

Locals say Mao did little for an area that assisted him when he needed it. Now, central planners hope the highway system will spur development in the interior and pave the way for growth in western China.

Similar to a two-lane road through eastern Kentucky, the Zunye-Chongxihe road is a crumbling, narrow blacktop that snakes through a rugged, winding maze of contoured switchbacks, restricting overland trade between Sichuan and the cities along China’s booming coastal plain. On the best day, it takes 12 hours to drive from Zunyi to Chongxihe.

The new four-lane expressway will cut the trip to four hours, says Xu Deyu, a senior engineer with Guizhou Expressway Development Corp. GEDC coordinates finance, design and construction at the provincial level. It also will administer eight toll plazas along the route and operate a communication center and three maintenance stations.

The old route follows topographic contours but modern design and construction methods are enabling engineers to cut through tight folds of jagged karst limestone. Slopes are steep and elevation along the expressway route rises from 420 to 1,450 meters above sea level. The region is seismically active and rainfall averages 850 to 1,600 mm annually in a subtropical monsoon climate. Landslides are common. Methane percolates from coal seams and infilled sinkholes dot the terrain.

High Road. Site prep crews do much of their work around bridge piers by hand (top), while the blacktopping team takes advantage of modern paving machinery.

The design frees the route from terrain by tunneling through mountains and lifting the road above valley floors. The old road’s notorious switchbacks–the worst stretch of road has 72–have been replaced by gently undulating curves.

The project is a civ-il engineer’s paradise with 121 bridges and 17 tunnels accounting for nearly 40 kilometers, or 38% of the total route. Xiao ZheZhang, GECD’s chief supervision engineer, came out of retirement to work on the project. "I’ve got 47 years of experience but this job makes me feel like a baby sometimes," he says.

"Engineers can come here and see more bridge and tunnel work on a single project than they will see in a lifetime," says Michael Yu, project director with Halcrow Group Ltd. The U.K.-based engineering consultant was brought on to advise on technology transfer, training, construction management and quality control. The Asian Development Bank is financing nearly one-quarter of the project’s estimated $827-million cost and insisted on an international overseer to see that things run smoothly.

Yu is diplomatic but candid in describing his firm’s function. "There’s no shortage of labor here," he says. "And the design institutes, with their experience in...