Hits and misses of Duterte's 'Build, Build, Build'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — President Rodrigo Duterte promised to usher in the country’s “golden age of infrastructure” by enhancing mobility and connectivity across the country through the Build, Build, Build (BBB) program. But was this goal achieved?

For Frances Flora*, who works in Metro Manila but commutes to and from her house in Laguna, said she’s not better off now.

Hindi ko ramdam. Mas mahirap pa rin ang public transpo [transportation] now,” she said when asked about any improvements in her daily routine.

[Translation: I do not feel it. Transportation is a lot harder these days.]

Flora said her worst experience was from 2017-2019 when there was heavy traffic and only a few MRT-3 trains were running.

“Need mong pumila nang matagal sa MRT, especially kung galing kang Ayala. Mas mabilis pa rin compared sa bus kasi kung mag-bus ka, ilang oras ka sa EDSA. Naranasan ko from Ayala to Cubao, inabot ako ng five hours,” Flora said.

[Translation: You need to line up for a long time at the MRT, especially if you’re from Ayala. It’s still faster compared to riding a bus, since that would take you hours along EDSA. I’ve experienced a trip from Ayala to Cubao that took five hours.]

For Marie Vincent*, who travels to work from Bulacan to Quezon City, every day is a struggle.

Eh di nakakapagod,” she said. “Yung hindi ka nga nag-OT (overtime) pero napa-OT ka sa pila.”

[Translation: Of course, it’s tiring. You may have not worked overtime but it felt like you did because of the long queues.]

BBB under Duterte

With infrastructure among the top priorities of the Duterte administration, the government projected that public spending on public works would reach up to ₱9 trillion from 2017 up to the current year.

In 2022 alone, the President approved over ₱860 billion for projects like the Network Development Program, Flood Management Program, Rail Transport Program, and Land Public Transportation Program.

The government believed accelerating infrastructure programs and the development of industries would yield robust growth, creating jobs and uplifting the lives of Filipinos.

Given its golden goal, the Duterte government was able to raise infrastructure spending to 5.3% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021 -- from only 3% when his term started. This was even projected to reach 5.8% by end-2022.

Latest data from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) showed that for the first four months of the year, the government’s infrastructure spending rose by 0.3%.

For April, infrastructure and capital outlays totaled ₱63.8 billion, with projects under the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) playing a lead role. This pushed the total infrastructure disbursements to ₱254.1 billion, according to the DBM.

“With the BBB Program in full swing in the last few years even amidst the pandemic crisis, the government disbursement of its funds have reached record-high due to strong infrastructure spending and other capital outlays,” DBM Undersecretary Rolando Toledo said.

Another goal of the BBB program is to provide employment for Filipinos. To fulfill its promise, the government initiated the “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” online portal in 2018 which lists employment opportunities for the many projects under the program. At present, there are no jobs available in the portal.

In terms of completed projects, only 18 of the 119 listed are expected to be delivered this month, according to Public Works Undersecretary Emil Sadain, who is also the chief implementer of the program. Of these, 11 have already been launched and operational from 2018 to 2021.

The number may seem small but the DPWH undersecretary still considers the Duterte government’s program a success, even citing how it raises the country’s infrastructure base.

"While the flagship infrastructure projects under BBB program continued to make progress, it is also setting up the foundation in terms of infrastructure for the next administration and beyond," Sadain said.

The program was not spared from bumps and challenges, but its chief implementer stressed these did not stop them from delivering the projects.

“I take pride in our resiliency, when we stood the ground against the pandemic and other calamities, working even harder amidst the struggles and unprecedented changes to sustain the momentum of the vision of massive infrastructure development,” he said.

This was echoed by DPWH acting Secretary Roger Mercado during the recent celebration of the department’s anniversary.

“Today, we and our work are testaments to how far we have contributed to the noble task of nation building. We continued to bravely build, build, and build, even in the midst of the deathly threat of the pandemic,” he said.

BBB according to experts

While BBB may have succeeded at least in the eyes of the government, some experts shared their thoughts on the matter.

Urban transport expert Rene Santiago said while there were efforts to address the traffic problem, “the traditional solution of more infrastructure did not do it because the implementation is very slow.”

“Our capacity to add infrastructure is very slow compared to the growth in traffic,” added Santiago, who is also a consultant for the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Another factor that affected the delivery of infrastructure programs is funding, especially in the past two years when the government had to realign its budget because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Infrawatch PH Convenor Terry Ridon, it is “too bold” to say that the golden age of infrastructure was achieved, noting how very few projects were delivered.

“Firstly, they only delivered…out of 119, they only delivered 18….In fact, ‘di pa nga ‘yun [those were not yet] completed, ongoing," Ridon told CNN Philippines.

But Ridon noted there were also other factors that may have contributed to the setbacks, like delays at the local level and in the release of commitments from project partners, particularly China. He added that the Duterte’s assurance of “no relocation, no demolition” to affected communities may have also added to the delay.

Meanwhile, Ridon commended the Duterte government’s decision to implement the Metro Manila Subway project which has been in the pipeline for the longest time.

“It is only under this administration that the President and the Transport department had made a full decision to undertake such a massive project,” Ridon said.

A challenge for the next admin

With only a few days left for Duterte government, the country expects much of the infrastructure programs to be passed on to President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.

While the Marcos administration said it is keen on continuing the BBB program, one of the biggest challenges it will face is financing.

“With such an impact on our current limited fiscal space, the new administration will have to make a difficult decision on the faith of the infrastructure program, whether it gets delayed or social programs will get more priority,” Marcos has pointed out.

Meanwhile, Flora and Vincent said they were not expecting too much from the incoming Marcos leadership.

Wala rin kasi pare-parehas lang sila na personal interest ang sine-serve,” Flora said.

[Translation: Still none because they all serve their own personal interests.]

“I don’t know kasi ‘yung [the issue on] gas nga hindi alam ang gagawin,” Vincent said.

[Translation: I don’t know because they don’t even know how to deal with the gas issue.]

Will the next administration do better? It’s up to the next set of leaders to change these people’s mindset.

*Names were changed upon the request of the interviewees.