Roads, bridges corner bulk of record infra spending
Prinz Magtulis (The Philippine Star) - March 20, 2016 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines – State infrastructure spending hit its highest level on record dating back to 1991 last year, but questions remain as to its quality as more funds were channeled to roads than mass transit.

The Aquino administration spent P595.78 billion in infrastructure in 2015, up 72.1 percent from a revised P346.25 billion a year ago, data from the Department of Budget and Management showed.

As a proportion of economic output, disbursements accounted for 3.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), the biggest since 1991, but below the four-percent target.

The target for 2016 is five percent.

“In both magnitude and quality, public spending under the Aquino administration is much better than in the past,” Budget Secretary Florencio Abad told The STAR in a text message. 

Broken down, figures showed more than a third of funds were funneled to constructing roads and bridges than any other infrastructure such as railways, airports and seaports.

It also accounted for nearly the entire growth rate that year, data showed. The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) – the government’s primary infrastructure agency spent P210.87 billion for roads and bridges, up 71.2 percent.

In a speech last year, President Aquino had boasted of increase in kilometers paved by the DPWH during his term. But analysts said the government may be doing more harm than good, especially to Metro Manila traffic.

“Create more roads and people will buy more cars,” National University architecture dean Chona Ponce said in a separate text message.

“We must seriously think of providing mass transport system,” she added.

Emilio Neri Jr., lead economist at Bank of the Philippine Islands, agreed. “Banks have been giving out loans like auto loans and yet the government does not spend enough in infrastructure,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Vehicle sales rose 23 percent last year, according to a report by the Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philippines and Truck Manufacturers Association. 

While the issue has long been on the capacity of our roads to absorb such influx of cars, a viable solution would have been to attract more people to trains and other form of mass transit.

But DBM figures showed money for other types of infrastructure lagged behind the amount allocated for roads. 

In particular, spending for railways amounted to only P10.58 billion, although this more than doubled from last year. Disbursements for airports rose more than four-fold to P13.946 billion, while those for seaports and lighthouses tripled to P1.652 billion.

However, spending classified as “land transportation/traffic decongestion” barely moved up to P3.42 billion from P2.11 billion in the same period.

Flood control structures and drainage systems reached P47.85 billion, while farm-to-market roads were allotted P1.38 billion.

Government’s explanation

When sought for comment, Abad offered another explanation why roads are being prioritized.

“Our colonizers – Japan and US – manufacture cars and want us to buy their cars. So their aid focused on helping us build more roads, highways and bridges,” Abad said.

“It would have been different if our colonizers were Europeans,” he added.

For Dan Lichauco, principal partner at Archion Architects, having more roads is not necessarily bad when geographical location is considered. 

He said while the government can no longer expand the road network in Metro Manila, there are more scope to increase connectivity in other regions.

“You have to get a breakdown of roads and bridges spent in Metro Manila against the rest of the country.  This will give you a snapshot of situation that led to the government’s decisions to allocate resources,” Lichauco said in an e-mail.

Latest DPWH data support this. Paved roads in National Capital Region (NCR) went up 6.27 percent in 2014, much slower than the expansion in other regions during the same period. 

For instance, road networks in the Cordillera Administrative Region (80.91 percent), Central Visayas (563.2 percent) and Caraga Region (272.19 percent), all grew faster than NCR’s.

“All roads outside Metro Manila is justifiable because it will allow farmers to bring produce to bring goods into the city as well as manufacturing good to and from ports,” Lichauco said.

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