ROW problems delay infra projects
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - October 15, 2017 - 4:00pm

I got this e-mail from an old friend who had worked on various government infrastructure projects. He confirmed my worst fears about why Build Build Build seems to be stranded.

His insider’s views explain why putting our hopes for economic growth on a massive infra drive of this administration set us up for a big disappointment. I hope the economic team, specially the secretaries for public works and transportation, can be more forthright in telling us how they are addressing right of way or ROW problems. These are serious roadblocks to BBB.

Here is the e-mail.

I read with great interest your column in The Philippine Star on Oct. 4, 2017 entitled “Bid Bid Bid”. I fully agree with the observation that agencies sometimes get bogged down in the quagmire of the procurement process.

But then, it may be argued that the current procurement procedures (RA 9184, enacted in 2003) are a lot better than the Marcos-era PD 1594. The procurement process under RA 9184 is a lot simpler, faster and more transparent. In fact, RA 9184 has been recognized by the World Bank as a “world-class legislation”.

However, the suggestion to bid out “design and build” projects is not something new. Most of the BOT/PPP expressway projects such as Calax, Daang Hari, NAIAx, TPLEX, Skyway, NLEX and SLEX are all “design and build”.

Ping de Jesus, who was DPWH secretary from 1990-1992, built some 13 flyovers in Metro Manila as well as some bridges, many (or most) of them “design and build” – and this was with a capital budget of maybe P10 billion per year, as compared to the current 2017 DPWH capital budget in excess of P450 billion.

During the time of DPWH secretary Vigilar (1993-2000), with an average annual budget of probably around P30 billion, more than 20 flyovers, underpasses, tunnels and bridges were built in Metro Manila, along with the Metro Manila Skyway, not to mention numerous major projects throughout the country.

Incidentally, during the previous administration, I am not aware of a single flyover, underpass or bridge built in Metro Manila (aside from the Quezon Avenue-Araneta Avenue underpass which was started during the term of PGMA), despite having a better procurement law and huge budgets. That dismal record, unfortunately, continues to the present date.

In my experience and probably the same as all the major expressway developers and contractors in the country, the biggest hindrance to infrastructure development is right-of-way (ROW) acquisition. In nearly all cases, infrastructure projects can be implemented in half the time if the ROW is provided in a timely manner.

When you raise this point to current government officials, they will undoubtedly lecture you on the vast improvement of the current ROW acquisition law, including paying claimants at market value, removal of capital gains tax, the use of independent appraisers, etc. All of this is true but the fact of the matter is that the actual ROW acquisition continues to move at a turtle’s pace, if not even slower. The problem lies more with the execution than with the law.

In the DPWH, perhaps 95 percent of the ROW acquisition staff are “job-order”, or daily-paid workers whose salaries are often three months delayed, who are not properly trained, are not provided office furniture, equipment or logistics, etc. They have no motivation and don’t really care to do their job properly and it’s hard to blame them, given the way they are treated.

Based on experience, proper ROW acquisition requires the services of a full-time, high-level, well-trained and experienced manager per project - this is currently not happening. ROW acquisition is a very tedious and complicated task because it may involve literally hundreds of parcels of land, owned by hundreds of persons whom you have to track down and whose individual issues are often quite unique.

One needs to be a lawyer, a surveyor, an assessor, a negotiator and at the same time, a counselor who knows how to listen to the tales of how a piece of property has been part of the family’s heirloom for generations. One has to be flexible and cannot just ram through an expropriation case against hapless citizens who will then proceed to barricade the road construction.

Yet, the government is hampered by its own rules and bureaucracy, which limits its ability to provide financial assistance.

In project development, one always looks for the “critical activities”, towards which you pour all the necessary resources. In the case of ROW acquisition, which happens to be the main “critical activity” in infrastructure development, it is tragic that there is little evidence of an effort to provide the most qualified and a sufficient number of people with the best resources.

The current administration has sought emergency powers from Congress to help solve the transportation crisis. Yet, the administration does not seem to know what to ask from Congress. I think that the government should ask Congress for powers to put together ROW acquisition teams that are properly paid, well-funded, provided with the proper resources and with the best possible leadership.

I would not mind, for example, having Chief Insp. Espenido or Gen. Ano as the ROW acquisition chief. I think that this role is that important. They should also be given extra flexibility in their financial transactions, unhampered by the typical government rules.

The implementing government agencies are hampered by the DBM rules on hiring and seemingly their own rules on financial transactions. There must be a way to resolve these, if necessary through legislation. 

Going back to the inability of the past administration to build major infrastructure in Metro Manila, I believe that can be blamed mainly on a lack of political will to solve ROW problems. That is why billions of pesos were spent on converting asphalt pavements to concrete and upgrading drainage pipes, because no ROW acquisition was involved.

Thus, even the beautiful and smooth asphalt pavement in front of the Rizal monument at Rizal Park was removed and replaced with a rough concrete pavement. These types of projects have minimal immediate benefit to people – we end up with basically the same roads and the same (if not worse) floods.

In the provinces, gravel shoulders were paved but remain to be shoulders, with vehicles parked, electric poles in the middle of them, converted to palay dryers, etc. I hope the current administration learns these lessons and provides more focus on ROW acquisition so that more useful infrastructure projects may be built throughout the country in a timely manner.

During the previous administration, there was a lot of talk about major road projects in Metro Manila, including the EDSA flyover over Taft and Tramo, the EDSA to Buendia tunnel, the bridge over the Pasig River connecting BGC to Ortigas, the Lacson flyover over Espana, the EDSA-Roosevelt flyover, etc. At the start of the present administration, these were the very same projects that were being hyped.

Yet, up to today, not one of these projects has even started. The reason for the non-implementation seems to be basically an inability to solve ROW issues and a lack of political will, both of which seem to have tragically been carried over from the previous administration to the present.

The mantra of the previous administration was the “Daang Matuwid”, which actually means delaying projects as long as possible through long-winded bureaucratic procedures of “passing the ball” to other people or even to the next administration. This is out of fear the ombudsman will investigate them, and their retirement benefits forfeited. Tragically, I fear that that same attitude is being carried over to the current administration.

Our President has shown tremendous leadership and political will in the fight against drugs, terrorists and criminals. I, and many other people, am fervently hoping that the President will inject that same zeal into the implementation of infrastructure projects.

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

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