Catch up game
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - July 9, 2019 - 12:00am

Weeks before President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address last year, the Commission on Audit (COA) released its 2017 report where it pointed out in the portion on the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) that P73.351 billion worth of infrastructure projects were either delayed, suspended, terminated, or unimplemented.

COA also noted that the DPWH had a very low utilization of funds, at less than a third of its committed spending for the year, resulting in the agency losing P27.647 million in commitment fees to banks.

With a little more than a year at the helm of DPWH, Secretary Mark Villar could not take refuge at his being newly minted, especially since the brickbats were clearly being directed at the success of the President’s Build Build Build infrastructure push.

Even if the President has a high regard for Villar’s parents, former Senate president Manuel B. Villar and incumbent Senator Cynthia Villar, the President is not one to spare criticism – or the rod – should DPWH flounder and put to risk the government’s infrastructure program.

Well, with parents as powerful and competent as Manny and Cynthia, and most likely with a little help from them, Mark has somehow been keeping up with the pace, and if we are to believe the periodic media releases, that everything is on track.

The DPWH receives the second biggest budget allocation in 2019, and together with the Department of Education account for a little less than a third of the national budget allocation of P3.662 trillion this year.


As the Duterte government enters its second half term, there is pressure for the DPWH to ramp up the pace of its projects – not just to catch up on the last three years’ slow start-up, but to also compensate on delays caused by the late release of the 2019 budget and the ban on government spending for the May elections.

Spending on infrastructure since 2016 when Duterte took over has been increasing steadily through the years, almost tripling last year what the previous administration had spent in 2015, its last full year. In 2018, for the first time in 12 years, spending on infrastructure was higher than allocated.

For the DPWH, its portfolio alone has risen from P110 billion in 2011 to this year’s appropriation of P454 billion, with significantly increased allocations for the building of roads and bridges, as well as flood control projects.

Aside from right-of-way problems, bottlenecks to project implementation come from the need to hire more manpower, both skilled and unskilled. By the young Villar’s reckoning, DPWH had hired 1.8 million workers last year, with half of the jobs going to unskilled workers, but more is needed.

Even within the department, the dearth of trained professionals has become apparent such that the DPWH is now looking at beefing its complement with 4,000 more engineers.

This does not even take into account the workers and professionals that are directly employed in flagship projects not under the stewardship of the DPWH, particularly those funded under official development assistance by countries like Japan and China.

There are also big-ticket projects under the Department of Transportation that are due to start or are going to be in full swing this year, including the five railway projects that would entail a total of P25 billion.

Risk of slippages

Slippages in the DPWH projects may seem like the past, but the risk is still very much apparent, more so if right-of-way problems are not efficiently dealt with. This has always been the weakness of previous – and even current – infrastructure projects.

This has never been more apparent than with the Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3 project that broke ground in April 2014. The plan for this 14-kilometer elevated toll road had been changed numerous times after right-of-way issues dragged on.

Villar has announced that the Plaza Dilao ramp will be completed this month, most probably right before the President’s State of the Nation Address on July 22. He said that the whole project would “substantially” be completed within the year.

The Plaza Dilao ramp, together with the Quirino Avenue and Nagtahan ramps, are just one of the five segments of this project that should connect the South Luzon Expressway with the North Luzon Expressway. The remaining segments will need to cut through other densely populated parts of Metro Manila.

Substandard work

The other risk that DPWH faces with its increased expenditure commitments is the high potential for substandard work given the shortage of qualified skilled and unskilled workers and competent supervisors on the job.

Contractors, in their haste to finish the projects within schedule, are forced to accept workers that have little or no rudimentary knowledge of construction work. With even fewer supervising engineers on the ground, the task of monitoring work has become even more challenging.

Worse, many contractors and subcontractors that had been on the blacklist, especially in the provinces, are being allowed to take on contracts again. These may not necessarily be the more specialized projects like bridges or ports, but nonetheless would affect the integrity of completed projects, especially if inferior building materials are used.

Contractors that have been banned in the past are also more prone to missing deadlines, something that the COA had highlighted in its 2017 report.

In last year’s COA report, the DPWH thankfully passed the critical eyes of the state auditors, and was not among the government agencies that were called to task. This should make Mark’s parents proud, but not enough to let their guard down.

The next three years will be more exacting on this young Cabinet official. 

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