SONA 2021: Are we now in the Golden Age of Infrastructure?

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 16) — “Golden Age of Infrastructure.”

This was President Rodrigo Duterte’s promise to Filipinos during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July 2017.

He vowed to attain this vision in the coming years to enhance mobility and connectivity in the entire Philippines.

The president believes more infrastructure will spur equitable economic development in the country.

“In other words, we are going to Build, Build and Build,” the chief executive told Congress during his second SONA.

"Build, build, build" literally means a slew of priority infrastructure programs, activities, and projects.

For Nonito Rodillado, who plies the roads daily as a jeepney driver in Quezon City, these projects matter.

Mas maganda na nga ngayon kaysa dati,” Rodillado said.

[Translation: It’s better now than in the past.]

Sonny Ricahuerta, a hotel bar server in Makati City, meanwhile, is hoping that more of the promised projects would become real.

Sana matapos na ‘yung mga MRT saka LRT para tuluy-tuloy na ‘yung maganda ‘yung biyahe,” Ricahuerta said.

[Translation: I’m hoping the other MRT and LRT projects would be finished soon so that we can continuously experience better travel.]

Highest infra spending in history

The program also aims to end decades of infrastructure underspending by previous administrations.

From 2000 to 2015, government spending on infrastructure averaged 2% of the annual economy. From 2016 to the present, that amount has more than doubled to around 5%, with the highest rate at 6.27% in 2017.

The present government is striving to make it 7% by next year, amounting to a whopping ₱8 trillion to ₱9 trillion.

The administration, however, spent a total of ₱2.53 trillion in the last five years, or only about a third of what the president earlier said.

This is still three times more though than that of the Aquino government’s ₱820 billion infrastructure spend.

“Nowhere in our history did we exceed 5% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Ten years ago that was our aspired goal. We could not reach even more than 2% of our GDP,” Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Chua said in a press briefing last June 18.

The BBB program also includes Infrastructure Flagship Projects (IFPs), which are composed of the biggest state projects.

Officials from various agencies initially identified 75 IFPs in 2017, and later revised it to 104 projects in 2020 and 119 in 2021. These projects amount to ₱4.72 trillion, lower by almost half of Duterte's promise.

Presidential Adviser for Flagship Projects Vince Dizon explained that they added more projects for the next administration to continue. Projects under implementation are taking a while to be completed and cannot be finished by one administration only.

Among the biggest IFPs, which are expected to be completed in a few years, are the following:

- New Manila International Airport in Bulacan (₱735.65 billion)

- North South Commuter Railway Extension — PNR North 2, PNR South Commuter (₱628.42 billion)

- Metro Manila Subway Project Phase 1 (₱356.97 billion)

The New Manila International Airport and the Metro Manila Subway Project are expected to be completed by 2025.

The North South Commuter Railway Extension — PNR North 2, meanwhile, is seen to be finished by third quarter of 2024.

11 of 119 projects done so far

National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) data reported that only 11 IFPs worth ₱126 billion have been completed to date:

- Improvement of remaining sections along Pasig River from Delpan Bridge to Napindan Channel (Metro Manila)

- Pulangi IV Hydroelectric Power Plant - Selective Dredging Phase 3 (Bukidnon)

- Sangley Airport (Cavite)

- Angat Water Transmission Improvement Project (Bulacan)

- Luzon Bypass Infrastructure Project (Aurora to La Union)

- New Clark City Phase 1 (Tarlac)

- Clark International Airport Expansion Project Phase 1 (Pampanga)

- LRT 2 East Extension (Metro Manila to Rizal)

- Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3 (Metro Manila)

- Bonifacio Global City - Ortigas Center Link Road Project (Metro Manila)

- China Grant Bridges - Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge and Binondo-Intramuros Bridge (Metro Manila)

Except for one in Mindanao, most of the completed projects are located in Metro Manila or Central Luzon.

Dizon said 12 more IFPs are for completion before the year ends, while 17 more will be finished within 2022. Meanwhile, 51 big-ticket projects are expected to be done by 2023 onwards and 28 are still in the pipeline.

Pipilitin talaga namin na magkaroon ng substantial accomplishment or at least masimulan ‘yung ibang long-term projects. Pero ‘yung mga short to medium term balak talaga naming tapusin sa term ni President [Duterte],” Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Secretary Mark Villar said.

[Translation: We will do our best to have a substantial accomplishment or at least to jumpstart the other long-term projects. We are planning however to finish the short to medium-term projects within the term of President Duterte.]

‘Successful, Unprecedented’

For Villar, the BBB program has been successful five years on.

The secretary has been conducting inspections and groundbreaking ceremonies of big-ticket projects every week.

“So halos times three po ang physical accomplishment ng Duterte Administration. So masasabi ko po talaga na malayong malayo ang accomplishment sa term ni President Duterte sa imprastraktura,” Villar said.

[Translation: The Duterte Administration’s physical accomplishment is thrice that of his predecessors. I can really say President Duterte’s accomplishments on infrastructure surpasses others.]

Villar also assured more major projects will be completed in the coming months despite woes of COVID-19 and typhoons. Some contractors are even working 24/7 in three shifts on the biggest infrastructure projects, he noted.

Lahat po ng targets ay ongoing pa rin so karamihan po ng 119 (IFPs) ay magiging substantially completed by the term of the President [Duterte],” Villar said.

[Translation: All of our targets are still ongoing that’s why most of the 119 IFPs will be substantially completed by the term of President Duterte.]

The son of Manny Villar, the country’s richest person, Secretary Villar is also hoping the other IFPs will be continued by the next administrations.

Villar, however, admitted the pandemic has affected the program, with funds being diverted for COVID response. His department has been focusing on putting up more modular hospitals and quarantine facilities in the past few months.

The DPWH also went under pressure last March to April, when most of Metro Manila’s hospitals reached full bed capacity.

He said they were able to lower the average capacity rate of hospitals to 60% with the help of these makeshift hospitals.

"We can say nagiimprove na ang sitwasyon pero siyempre ayaw naming maging kampante. Kailangan naming dagdagan,” he said in an interview last May 25.

[Translation: We can say the situation has really been improving but we don’t want to become complacent. We need to add more facilities.]

Overpromised, underdelivered?

Terry Ridon, convenor of think tank InfrawatchPH, meanwhile, is seeing it differently.

Ridon said Duterte might be missing his own goals, even if more projects were either built or continued from the past. He noted less than 40 or a third of the 119 IFPs could be possibly finished within the Duterte administration.

“It had overpromised but underdelivered,” he said in an interview. “I’m quite not sure whether we had in fact reached 50% so kung ganoon natin siya titingnan, talagang bagsak po.”

[Translation: I’m quite not sure whether we had in fact reached 50%. If we view it that way, then the program failed.]

The former partylist congressman also criticized the government’s preference for China for some projects. Details of these are not that known to the public. He noted that the aid might have compromised the country’s sovereignty over its territories in the West Philippine Sea.

14 of the 119 IFPs are funded through the China’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) to the Philippines. Among the biggest are the PNR South Long Haul (₱175.31 billion) and Mindanao Rail Project Phase 1 (₱81.69 billion).

The Chinese-funded Estrella-Pantaleon and Binondo-Intramuros Bridges, meanwhile, are set to open this year.

The Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge, in particular, drew some flak for employing mostly Chinese instead of Filipino workers.

“Unlike today that we are really seeing vagueness and opacity and in fact confusion between bilateral relations between Manila and Beijing, the next administration should basically clarify and be transparent on how it views the bilateral relations particularly in regard to the West Philippine Sea dispute,” Ridon added.

Cabinet members say the criticisms leveled against them are unfair.

Kaya nga hindi ko maintindihan kung bakit magkakaroon ng proyekto, ang sasabihin nila, ‘hindi nila kayang gawin ‘yan.’ Bakit pinapabaunan niyo kami ng agam-agam?” Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade said.

[Translation: That’s why I can’t understand why everytime we will have a project, they will say that we can’t do it. Why are you always doubting us?]

Are we now in the Golden Age of Infrastructure?

When cabinet members were asked during the briefing if they were able to achieve the vision, they did not answer a yes or a no.

Tugade instead promised they will not stop on building more infrastructure projects to achieve Duterte’s goal.

“Because of the improvement, I believe we can say we were able to place on the pedestal the performance of the president, of the Duterte Administration, and the steps towards the so-called Golden Age of Infrastructure,” Tugade said in a mix of English and Filipino.

For his part, Villar said the numbers speak for themselves.

“Despite the most challenging na pandemic, siguro sa kasaysayan ng ating bansa… Despite that, na-accomplish pa rin ng Duterte Administration ang goals natin,” he added.

[Translation: Despite experiencing the most challenging pandemic maybe in the history of our country, the Duterte Administration was still able to accomplish its goals.]

For ordinary Filipinos, however, all the structures and numbers are meaningless unless these help them make a decent living.

Nonito said that while he can travel faster now due to less vehicles on the streets, the pandemic has affected his daily income.

Mahirap pa rin ang pasada dahil marami pang walang pasok,” he added.

[Translation: Taking passengers on sidestreets remains challenging since most people are not yet going to work or school.]

Sonny, meanwhile, is hoping to get a more stable job amid the infrastructure progress the country has seen.

Kay Duterte okay ako riyan sa mga infrastructure. Tinutuloy niya ‘yung mga hindi natuloy na project, ngayon maganda na,” he said. “Kaya lang nakakalungkot kasi ‘yung ekonomiya natin eh. Tulad ko nagtatrabaho ako, ‘yung pasok ko sa isang linggo tatlong araw lang.”

[Translation: I’m good with Duterte when it comes into infrastructure projects. He continued past projects which are now beautiful. The status of economy however saddens me. Just like me, I now only go to work thrice a week.]