The race to build roads
GLO10 china highways

A $207 billion investment to head off future traffic jams

In the past decade alone, China has built 31,000 miles of expressways. That's about two-thirds the length of the entire U.S. Interstate Highway System, constructed at great cost since it was founded some 60 years ago. Today China boasts 49,000 miles of expressways -- and some 2.6 million miles of roads, more than double the amount in 2002.

And it's still growing. Last year China invested $207 billion in road construction and upgrades, according to analysis by KPMG. The government's current five-year plan in the country calls for at least 186,000 miles (and many billions of dollars) more by 2015, with plans to complete nine separate north-south lines and 18 expressways running east to west. Seven additional routes radiate from Beijing to China's borders.

"Most of this infrastructure is catch-up," says Sam Staley, a Florida State University professor who studies transportation in the country for the Reason Foundation. China is home to 20% of the world's population but still has just 5.6% of its roads. In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. to become the world's largest car market, with 19.3 million vehicles sold last year.

Highway construction has been an important part of China's efforts to create jobs. Last year the country had 46 businesses in the industry, with 710,500 employees and a $12.3 billion payroll, according to research firm IBISWorld.

But leadership expects that the roadways will play a critical role in transporting suppliers and finished goods from factories to ports, and in helping make logistics more efficient. (Among the most watched endeavors are massive bridge projects. The most highly anticipated undertaking is a 50-kilometer six-lane bridge linking China's southern Guangdong province with Hong Kong and Macau. It is slated for completion in 2016 and proponents claim it will reduce travel time from mainland China to Hong Kong from more than four hours to 40 minutes.) Says Staley: "They're not done by any stretch of the imagination." Or any stretch of highway.

  @FortuneMagazine - Last updated May 23 2013 07:07 AM ET
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