Long term vision
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - November 16, 2018 - 12:00am

When my US-based sister and her American husband visited some years ago, I took them to Baguio and was sorry I did. No more smell of pine trees as you go up Kennon, and the city itself was an urban mess.

Only the Country Club and the part of John Hay adjacent to it looked like the Baguio we remembered from our youth. Because of that disappointment, I had no good reason to go up north for a while. So it was my first time to use TPLEX all the way to Pangasinan last week. It was fantastic!

Constructing TPLEX had been talked about for years. I remember sitting in one such discussion when we were rehabilitating NLEX. Our decision was to delay investing in it because the traffic count wouldn’t justify the cost.

But I recall that we joined a consortium composed of other fairly large construction companies with the intention of eventually doing TPLEX. Then I heard nothing more about it for a while.

The next thing I heard about TPLEX was that Ramon Ang bought out most, if not all of the consortium members, as he decided to do TPLEX on his own. He was not worried about the low traffic count.

When I asked him why he isn’t waiting for the traffic count to rise before building TPLEX, he said he is taking a long term view. He also said he is not just thinking of the traffic count in his business model, but everything else that would bring in revenues. Think logistics for consumer and agricultural products. Think Petron service stations, and, he adds… an improved economy.

For the same reason, RSA wants to extend it all the way to the Ilocos provinces in a route with an even lower traffic count. For now, he wants to extend it far enough for motorists to immediately start climbing up to Baguio upon exit from the tollway.

In my last conversation with RSA, he said that the only thing delaying the extension of TPLEX is right of way. I know San Miguel went through a lot of ROW difficulties to get to where TPLEX is now.

It is fair to think that if we waited for government to do TPLEX, we still wouldn’t have it today. For that matter, even the run-of-the-mill private sector taipans wouldn’t do TPLEX until the traffic count was high enough to guarantee a good profit.

RSA is that weird kind of business leader who thinks differently by emphasizing long term gains. No president in our history even thinks like him.

I once asked him why he is building infrastructure projects that won’t deliver profits right away. He said he looks at the potential benefit the project will bring to the economy. He thinks that if the economy moves up, so will San Miguel’s diverse businesses.

One time, when the interest of foreign investors in our country was very low, I asked RSA what he thought about it. He quickly said that is not a problem because that gives locals like San Miguel more investment opportunities. He is totally bullish on our economy no matter what the economic metrics of the day say.

When I first met RSA, I thought he was just saying those things to make him and San Miguel look good. But RSA has been putting his and San Miguel’s money where his mouth is. It is a tough act to follow. No other taipan, Spanish mestizo, Chinoy or native Filipino, has the guts to do what he is doing.

For example, in his proposal to build a world class airport in Bulacan, he is putting his personal fortune at risk alongside San Miguel’s. He told me that even his mother, who is over 90 years old, thinks he is crazy. That’s how passionate he is about this project even if the delay in government approval has escalated the cost due to the peso devaluation and inflation.

Beyond TPLEX, RSA wants to do an expressway that goes through Nueva Ecija, extend SLEX all the way to Lucena and beyond. He also wants to get going on C6 and get most of the trucks out of C5. But he is still waiting for government approvals and delivery of ROWs.

There are times I think he should be the country’s president. He has political savvy and he is a visionary with a long term view of development.

RSA firmly rejects any talk of political ambition. He believes he can do more for the country as a private entrepreneur. The president is constrained by the toxic nature of our politics and the low quality of our bureaucracy. In San Miguel, RSA can have the best people and move fast.

Private sector in infrastructure is the way to go. Maybe, the Duterte administration made a serious mistake when it sidelined the private sector for its BBB program in favor of ODA and GAA. We are now on the third year and we aren’t seeing much by way of projects getting underway.

The big ticket projects being inaugurated are leftover projects of previous administrations. Duterte’s economic managers are having difficulty starting new projects from scratch.

That is not surprising because the government doesn’t have enough technical expertise to do feasibility studies and execute projects. Working with the private sector fills in those shortcomings, but they placed the PPP in the back burner.

Sayang because, as observed by economist Ciel Habito, a former NEDA chief under FVR, “The PPP Center had already lined up more than 50 PPP projects, much of them ready for bidding after long and tedious work.”

It is time to shift gears. Government officials should think like RSA. At the very least, they shouldn’t obstruct guys like him because they are ready to move fast, at their own risk, to provide infrastructure and services our people needed yesterday.

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

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