No sense of urgency, mission

- Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

I got an invitation last Sunday to attend a seminar the next day on Philippine Infrastructure Development sponsored by the PPP and some Japanese government agencies including JICA. I don’t normally wake up early specially on a Monday morning, but I thought it would be a good chance to update myself on a favorite topic.

I am grateful for the invitation but at the same time, I felt embarrassed by the government presentations. I got the feeling that the Japanese business executives there must have wondered if they were wasting their time.

I am sure many of the attendees have heard the presentations a number of times and realized that nothing much moved. Indeed, the guy who presented for PPP was somewhat defensive as he urged everyone to temper expectations with realities in terms of time needed in preparing the paperwork for worthy projects.

Luckily I had my smart phone so I was half clearing my email and responding to comments on Facebook and Twitter. Multitasking, I was also listening to the presentations hoping to hear something new, something that moved. Only the BCDA presentation on the Clark Smart City may have been somewhat interesting for an investor.

Worse, they were recycling old projects, as in over 10 years old, to make them seem if not new, at least has a chance of finally seeing the light of day. Most were under study by JICA, because earlier studies also by JICA are deemed outdated.

I remember what a JICA transport consultant once remarked in a public forum on DOTC’s transport projects. He said he was still a young man when he started doing studies for our transport sector. He sighed, he is still doing the same studies today and he is an old man already.

Then he said something with a lot of truth in it… he said he is tired of doing these transport studies and it is time that you Filipinos started making decisions based on the studies they have already done. He voiced exactly what I had in mind.

I suspect our bureaucrats are requiring all those studies upon studies because they really have no intention of making decisions. They just want to look busy. They are probably afraid to decide big ticket projects that could become controversial and destroy their careers. Or the decisions expected of them are in reality beyond their competence.

If Japan is sincere in wanting to help our country get on with our development goals, they will instruct JICA to just make one study for free and any restudy will require our government to pay full cost. Of course JICA, which has nurtured an industry on writing studies, will never agree. I suspect the existence of a flourishing cartel doing project studies that are not meant to be implemented.

I had no intention of participating in the discussions last Monday but when I heard the official from the Department of Energy make a presentation on the CNG buses, I couldn’t help myself. She made it look like it was a viable project that just suffered a temporary hiccup.

I have long taken an interest on this project to fuel our public transport buses with compressed natural gas. I am suffering from a recurrence of my childhood asthma and a bad case of chronic sinusitis on account of Metro Manila’s badly polluted air. All that exhaust spewed by among others, those buses with badly tuned diesel engines is bad news to everyone’s lungs.

I was just in San Francisco and I noticed that they now have a lot of buses using CNG. Not only is CNG a cleaner fuel than diesel for public transport, it is also good for the pockets of commuters and operators. CNG is supposed to be a more efficient fuel and when the project was first launched, it was also cheaper than diesel.

Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed way back in February 2004 Executive Order 290 which created the Natural Gas Vehicle Program for Public Transport (NGVPPT). The project was a government and private sector project, with Shell tasked to set up the distribution facilities of the fuel. DBP was supposed to finance private bus operators who, thereafter, bought over 60 buses with a program to get up to 200 buses, if I remember the numbers right.

In 2008, Shell started operations briefly and then stopped. I had a series of e-mail exchanges with Shell president Ed Chua who told me they had some technical problems. This went on for quite a bit of time until Shell dropped the project. 

I couldn’t believe Shell couldn’t solve the technical problem given its market leader reputation in the world oil industry. Neither could I believe that Management Man of the Year Ed Chua couldn’t get this project going.

PNOC was supposed to pick up the project, but nothing much happened up to today. It seems pretty hopeless to me because the project is 10 years old and has gotten nowhere even if it is something we badly need.

I recall that the bus operators who invested in the project by actually buying buses called the attention of then Energy Secretary Rene Almendras. The operators complained about the uncertainties of the project because of the distribution problem that PNOC was supposed to pick up from Shell.

Unfortunately, the PNOC today is nowhere near the PNOC of our time. The officials of PNOC today are just happy to collect their fat salaries and bonuses and deliver nothing. 

In our days, we had deadlines to deliver projects and no excuses. We actually developed peptic ulcers from the pressure to deliver. Today, they develop fat asses killing time while sitting in their comfortable executive suites.

That’s the other thing I noticed with the government infrastructure presentations last Monday. They have no deadlines. They mention years they expect to complete a project but from experience, those dates are movable rather than firm deadlines. That’s why there isn’t one infra project this Aquino administration can claim to have completed today.

It was almost cruel to listen to the presentation on the airport projects. It became even more painful when the guy representing Mitsubishi Heavy Industries made a presentation of his findings on our airport needs.

The Mitsubishi guy was impressed with the high passenger growth rate of the Philippines, but quickly added that we are not meeting the need. He talked of lost opportunities specially in tourism. He showed a table that ranked us 6th in Asean behind Indonesia and Vietnam in terms of international visitor arrivals.

The Mitsubishi guy also noted how our other airports are not meeting growth requirements. He suggested that if we upgrade the airports in the tourism areas, we can relieve substantially air traffic congestion at NAIA. Tourists can go directly to Boracay, Cebu, Davao, etc. and avoid Manila.

That was what we have been saying here in this column too. But as I have also always pointed out, DOTC has failed to upgrade some key airports for all weather and night landing so that PAL and Cebu Pacific can schedule flights even at night rather than bunch up their flights to NAIA during the daylight hours.

How difficult is it to procure the runway lights and aviation navigation facilities needed? I realize government procurement procedures can be cumbersome, but if a cabinet member has malasakit for his job, he will go to the President and tell him we have to do these number of things urgently. Maybe, with the President aware of his problems, things can be made to move faster.

Being led by lawyers rather than by engineers is DOTC’s big handicap. And the engineers they do have are not that experienced in designing and implementing world class infra projects. I am told they are quite academic and bureaucratic. They have not been exposed to international project management.

But when I look at all the beautiful infrastructure in our neighboring countries, I am sure some Filipino engineers and architects helped build those impressive airports and expressways. This is why I believe it is necessary for private industry with exposure to international project management be allowed to work on these projects.

Until our bureaucrats start working with a purpose to produce something tangible, we will just be left behind further and further each year. We need to see a sense of urgency, specially as our infra requirements are so dire.

I hope that the next time I attend a government presentation, I will note movement in the projects. A long laundry list is not impressive without firm deadlines. And if a cabinet secretary is worth his title, he must be ready to resign if deadlines are missed.

I know… I am dreaming. But that’s what boring presentations do to me. I don’t know how I could have survived last Monday without my smart phone and Facebook.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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