FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - November 16, 2019 - 12:00am

Out of the blue, LP Senator Franklin Drilon appears and blurts out the strange claim that the administration’s centerpiece infrastructure program is a dismal failure.

The claim directly clashes with every fact on the ground. Because of this, only one media outlet known for its severe anti-Duterte skew gave the claim any prominence. The others politely gave Drilon enough room to quietly maneuver away from his patently uninformed outburst.

Drilon must have missed the report on our third quarter growth performance released days before.

In the first half of the year, the economy grew by only 5.5% – mainly because of the delay in the enactment of the 2019 national budget and the suspension of new public works projects during the election period.  In the third quarter, GDP growth rebounded to 6.2% due largely to the uptick in public spending.

The delay in the enactment of the 2019 national budget is due principally to the follies of politicians in the legislative branch. The year was saved mainly by the “catch-up” spending plan put in place by the country’s economic managers – precisely the ones Drilon chooses to demean by making his cynical conclusion.

The infrastructure program is the main driver of our economic expansion. Public economic investments, as we know, has the highest multiplier effects. It generates the domestic economic activity that allowed us to defy the global slowdown.  It will enable us to escape recession as we did in 2008, when the global financial meltdown shrunk several economies.

The infrastructure program is a mix of strategic infrastructure projects and smaller public works projects numbering in the thousands. It includes the Metro Manila subway project, our largest and costliest public works undertaking to date. Literally thousands of projects upgrading roads, building new ones, erecting bridges and improving ports and airports have been completed or initiated.

Since the start of the Duterte administration, about P1 trillion has been spent in modernizing our infrastructure backbone. We have increased the share of infra investments to well over 5% of GDP – double the historical average of the last three decades. Next year and up to the end of the Duterte administration, economic managers are expecting to bring up the share of infra investments to 7% of GDP.

The quality of our infra is 20 years behind what our regional neighbors built for their people. That is because they invested 5% of their GDP in infra while we struggled with the effects of our debt crisis. This is the final reason why we have fallen behind our neighbors.

About a third of the strategic projects earlier identified have been initiated. Some projects have been rethought because they cost too much and confront engineering challenges. Among such, the ambitious inter-island bridge projects.

Those projects have been replaced with new ones designed to be more economic. From 75 strategic projects, the Build, Build, Build program now lists about 100 flagship projects.

Each major project has to undergo economic impact assessment by the NEDA. Each requires a financing package to be put together. Each financing package involving ODAs will need to be negotiated with our development partners.

Our major development partners are Japan, China, South Korea, the ADB and the AIIB. Every financing proposal will go through their respective bureaucracies for vetting. Some large projects require preparatory technical studies for which grant support will have to be negotiated.

A lot of work has to be put in before a major project even breaks ground. Much of that work has been done by the NEDA, the DOF, the DOTC and the DPWH. Public Works Secretary Mark Villar has done a splendid job getting the budget-supported projects going as quickly as possible. Many projects that hibernated in the bureaucracy for a decade or more have been done.

In addition to government-initiated projects, the private sector participates in modernizing our logistics backbone through various PPP arrangements. Most notable among these are the elevated connector road and the awesome Bulacan airport project undertaken by San Miguel. Next month, ground will be broken for the Bulacan airport.

There are, to be sure, many bottlenecks for something as ambitious as the Build, Build, Build program. There are limits to what our existing bureaucracy can undertake, even if they work around the clock. There are limits imposed by the requirements of fiscal discipline to how much we can borrow. We are running short of engineers and skilled manpower to help in complex projects.

Despite all those, the infra program has definitely gathered steam. It is felt throughout the archipelago. The growth of our construction sector is running at twice our GDP growth rate.

The infra program and its multiplier effects benefitted millions of Filipinos. It created new jobs, opened numerous investment opportunities and improved property values everywhere. It is responsible for keeping our economy a growth leader the decrease in investment inflows and value of exports notwithstanding.

How Drilon, stalwart of the do-nothing Aquino III administration, could arrive at the conclusion this program is a dismal failure is puzzling. It can only be a measure of the cynical posturing of an incompetent opposition.

BCDA president and presidential adviser on the flagship projects Vince Dizon, the most relentless of Duterte’s men, appeared before the Senate to educate the senators on the progress of the infra program.

In the face of the compelling rundown of the projects underway, Drilon shifted tack. He questioned how the infra investments made at Clark New City will earn their keep. This was something the wily senator never asked of his pet project: the costly Iloilo Convention Center.

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