Finally, there are some good news coming from Manila. After months of reading mostly about the brutal and deadly drug war, and curses and threats from a leader who is allergic to criticisms, we are finally hearing what people want from an administration. And it is a good thing that the announcement was made by a group of brilliant and tested economic managers at a forum attended by economic experts. No expletives, no blaming. Just plain facts and figures. Just a promise of better things to come for everybody, including the families of the murdered drug users, who after all are Filipino citizens who deserved the understanding and attention, not just condemnation from their president.
The economic team, which included Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia and Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, presented what Diokno said would usher in a “golden age of infrastructure” in the country.
Following the footsteps of the late strongman, President Ferdinand Marcos, who is obviously the role model of President Duterte, the administration promised to “build, build, build” infrastructure projects worth a total of P3.6 trillion under the so-called TRIP, or three-year rolling infrastructure program from 2018 to 2020.
The three-year promised period is another thing to be awed about. In those years when Presidents had four-year terms, they launched five-year development plans that obviously extend beyond their tenure, a hint that they needed a second term to accomplish the task. Duterte’s TRIP promises to finish or at least begin construction of all the big-item projects by 2020, or almost two years before his terms ends in 2022.
Among the big-item projects in the works in that three-year period are the 25-kilometer Mega Manila subway system, the 105-km Mindanao railway system, the 8-km elevated NLEX-SLEX connector road, two bridges across the Pasig River connecting Bonifacio Global City to Ortigas Road and Lawton Avenue, the 38-km PNR railway line between Malolos, Bulacan and Metro Manila, the 69.5-km PNR line between Manila and Clark airport, the 72-km PNR line between Manila and Los Banos, Laguna, the 581-km PNR line between Manila and Legazpi City, the 65-km passenger and cargo rail between Subic and Clark, and a 13,700 sq. m. common station for the three railway lines.
Actually, the Duterte administration plans to spend a total of P8.4 trillion over the next six years that include Congress-approved and appropriated projects inherited from the previous administrations. These projects that remain in the planning stage after many years were 11 projects worth P323 billion under the Aquino administration and one worth P5.44 billion under the Arroyo administration.
Noticeable here was the failure of the administration of President Noynoy Aquino to implement 11 big projects that already had been approved and given appropriation by Congress. The Aquino administration was either too cautious in implementing projects prone to corruption or was simply too incompetent to work on them. In fact, Aquino did not honor a few major public contracts with foreign companies, such as the Laguna Lake and the NAIA 3 Piatco contract, that earned the ire and distrust of foreign investors.
On the other hand, while the Aquino administration was too cautious with regards public works contracts, the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration was too lenient in granting contracts that turned out to be laden with corruption.
Another great thing that turned up during the “Dutertenomics Forum,” according to some of those who attended, was that instead of the usual tossing of the blame to the previous administration, the new economic managers cited the good work done by the previous administrations for the economic momentum the country has gained through the years. Especially in the previous six years, we had to go through a lot of blaming and chest-beating by the Aquino administration.
Still, we have to welcome this great news with caution. We should all know by now that for decades now, infrastructure projects have always been the biggest source of corruption in the country. It is common knowledge that commissions paid out to government officials ranging from 15 to 30 percent are already marked into bids submitted by contractors, and a few millions more in bribes are given to officials making decisions on the bids. To recover these costs, contractors cut corners resulting in inadequate and substandard projects.
The economic managers said that things would be different this time as President Duterte had repeatedly promised to curb corruption and cut red tape during his term. The economic team also promised to have effective monitoring of all the projects and to get as many projects as possible started on time.
Subways, new railway systems, new bridges and new roads could solve many of our country’s problems in transportation and trade, and even help decongest Metro Manila as they would encourage investors to build factories and other businesses outside the overcrowded metropolis and people to go back to the provinces where work would then be available. It can also strongly boost tourism as more places become accessible to both domestic and foreign tourists.
An adequate and reliable infrastructure network has always been the main reason foreign investors have been shying away from the Philippines, and why, despite the recent outstanding growth rate, the country is still lagging behind our ASEAN neighbors. Hopefully, with a decent infrastructure network, as promised by the new economic team, the administration’s 10-point socioeconomic agenda would be more attainable and be able to reduce poverty from 21.6 percent in 2015 to 13 to 15 percent by 2022.
We can only hope the politicians would cooperate this time. And that’s the other caveat that we have to consider. Congress will have to approve new tax reform measures that would cover most of the costs of these projects and the appropriations for some. And that could be the biggest hurdle the economic managers could face to realize the “golden age of infrastructure.”
It would be in Congress, especially in the House of Representatives where appropriations originate, where the negotiations would be held and history tells us that the “golden age of infrastructure” could easily turn into a “golden age of corruption” unless Duterte shows sincerity and a strong political will to pursue his promise of a corruption-free government.
Maybe it’s time for Duterte to deviate from his brutal drug war and focus more on the economic side of governance while making sure to curb corruption. After all, he has already made his point to criminals and drug lords, and hopefully to corrupt politicians. He can yet turn his image around and leave a legacy of economic prosperity for all. (firstname.lastname@example.org)