Failure or golden age?

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 25, 2019 - 12:00am

The post of presidential adviser on flagship projects has been revived after 19 years. An administration ally, meanwhile, has filed a bill at the House of Representatives, proposing special powers for President Duterte to speed up the implementation of his flagship projects under the much touted Build Build Build or BBB.

Duterte himself indicated impatience with BBB in another expletive-laced speech last Friday. Or maybe he was in a snit over the description of BBB as a “dismal failure” by Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, compounded by critical comments about the vaping ban from the president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.

Build Build Build, Duterte said, sounded like the Filipino word for stomach flab or bilbil; BBB is “s***” and he now prefers “build use, build use.”

So you can’t blame people – and not only opposition politicians – for thinking that BBB has failed to live up to expectations, and that the promised “golden age of infrastructure” will become nothing but hot air.

Vince Dizon, plucked out from the Bases Conversion and Development Authority to become adviser on flagship projects, had told us on the One News TV show “The Chiefs” that his mission was, indeed, to help fast-track the implementation of BBB.

At the time of the TV interview, he said the 75 flagship projects were being revisited, with several being dropped but also with new ones being added. Metrics have changed for some projects, Dizon explained, or else there were problems with feasibility studies. Meanwhile, some other projects have gained more importance.

The administration has since come up with a new list of about 100 so-called high-impact projects, of which about 45 are already being implemented.

This did not stop the administration from being skewered for the report that only nine out of the original 75 flagship projects were actually being implemented. The report prompted that comment from Drilon.

Among Duterte’s political allies and officials, the only person who has so far refuted this assessment soberly and with a measure of credibility, without rushing into a head-on collision with Drilon, is one of the two principal implementers of BBB, Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar. (The second one is Transport Secretary Arthur Tugade, whose BBB project implementation, let’s face it, deserves that s*** comment from Duterte.)

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The President may want to take some pointers from his public works chief on defending BBB without picking fights or denigrating previous administrations. Villar makes even the Kaliwa Dam project, long stalled and a major cause of the current water woes in Metro Manila, seem doable.

“Let’s not obsess over a list that was made a long time ago,” Villar told us on The Chiefs last week. “How can 75 projects represent the whole universe of Build Build Build?… There’s no metric that would give us the conclusion that it’s a failure.”

At the rate projects are being implemented, Villar vows that from 2020 to 2021, one high-impact project will be coming onstream “almost every month.”

Out of the revised list of some 100 major projects, he says the administration has picked for speedy implementation nearly half that the Asian Development Bank considers to have a “high economic rate of return” to avoid building white elephants.

The nearly five-month delay in the approval of this year’s national budget slowed down project implementation, Villar admits, but now “we’re back on track.”

“I think we’re moving at a pace that’s faster than most,” he told us, citing a 93 percent absorptive capacity. “I would say that we’re on schedule… don’t take my word for it. Look at the economic indicators.”

Over P500 billion has been disbursed so far this year for project implementation. That’s five percent of gross domestic product disbursed for infrastructure – unprecedented for the country, Villar points out – and they intend to bring it up to seven percent by 2020. GDP targets are back on track, he says.

“There are so many projects that we’ve delivered,” he told us. “Make no mistake – the golden age of infrastructure is all systems go.”

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Villar acknowledges the many problems in the way of project implementation in this country.

It takes about a year, he notes, to complete a good feasibility study for a high-impact project, another year to complete the detailed engineering design, and who knows how much longer to hurdle issues such as right of way (ROW) and, as in the case of Kaliwa and other dams, opposition from indigenous communities whose rights to ancestral domain are protected by law.

ROW problems are cited even by telecommunications companies for their inability to install all the towers they need, which is the reason for crummy phone and internet services.

Villar points out that the government can invoke the principle of eminent domain to take private property for public use. The courts, he stresses, cannot interfere directly in such projects. What could slow down the process is the lack of government assessors for proper valuation of the property and payment of reasonable compensation.

When you need to move hundreds of households out of the way for one project, this isn’t a simple task.

So he’s thinking of asking authorities to hire more government assessors, or have the work outsourced to speed things up.

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Problems are common but are not insurmountable, says Villar, who maintains that Duterte isn’t exaggerating in his claim that his administration will be a golden age of infrastructure.

Among the ongoing projects is the Panguil Bay bridge that will connect Misamis Occidental to Lanao del Norte. At 3.48 kilometers, the P4.9-billion bridge funded by South Korea will be one of the longest in the world. Another bridge costing P23 billion, connecting Davao and Samal, is 2.83 km long, also making it longer than the San Juanico bridge between Samar and Leyte, currently the longest in the country at 2.2 km.

Villar promises “substantial completion” of the two bridges by the end of Duterte’s term in 2022.

“You can expect big things. The years 2020, 2021 will be banner years for Build Build Build,” Villar vows.

Mark his words.

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