LIKE an errant student who has spent most of the exam period doodling on the back of his test paper and is trying to rush to complete it before time expires, President BS Aquino 3rd’s attempt to generate some kind of respectable record of infrastructure development – a globally-recognized shortcoming of his government – in the last three months of his term appears headed for a completely unsurprising failure.
On Monday, the bidding deadline for the P122.8 billion Laguna Lake Expressway Dike project under Aquino’s much-heralded but not especially productive public-private partnership (PPP) program came and went with none of the three qualified bidders submitting a bid. With the bid failure, the project is now deemed “terminated.” No, it’s not completely dead, but back to square one. If it is resurrected later, the entire process of qualification, bidding, and award will have to be restarted from the very beginning.
Since the recently-promoted PPP Center Raj Palacios enthusiastically announced earlier in the month that the government hopes to award 10 PPP projects before the end of Aquino’s term on June 30, at least three big projects have run into some kind of snag: The now-dead Laguna Lake project was the worst, but the modernization of the Davao Sasa Port and the first phase of the biggest PPP project, the North-South Railway, have both seen their bid submission deadlines pushed back due to various technicalities and unanswered questions.
The PPP Center’s Palacios has said he is still hopeful seven (of the current total of 14 planned) projects can be awarded before June 30, but he is sounding less optimistic than before, particularly after Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) head Rogelio Singson openly questioned whether even attempting to resurrect the Laguna Lake project was a good idea, given the risk it might be regarded as a “midnight deal.”
Secretary Singson deserves a some credit for his perception, but the problems with the rush to award the project were much deeper than appearances. The three qualified bidders – an Ayala-led consortium, San Miguel Corp., and a tie-up between the Villar group, two Korean firms, and one from Malaysia – all expressed rather significant misgivings about the project. The biggest negative factor is the lack of connectivity to other commercial and business centers in Metro Manila. As proposed, the lengthy highway following the southern shore of the lake would have few if any highway connections to other areas where businesses and consumers congregate, other than at either end of the highway in Muntinlupa and Los Baños.
For investors who will be relying primarily on road tolls to recover their investment and earn a profit, they are right to regard with skepticism a project that would in turn rely on other road projects (that have not even been conceived yet) to connect it to a target market.
The great irony – some might say poetic justice – of the failure of Aquino’s Laguna Lake to get off the ground is that it was his proposed alternative to a solid flood-control project, one that was under a finalized contract with a globally respected Belgian marine engineering firm with a long track record and had been vetted by the relevant government agencies at least three times, that Aquino capriciously canceled early in his term just because it was a Macapagal-Arroyo project. Thanks to that stupid decision, which cost the government several million dollars in settlements, the flood-prone lake now has no flood control system, no highway, and little but dim prospects of any sort of infrastructure development for the foreseeable future.
“Haste makes waste,” as the old saying goes, and the disappointing outcome of the Laguna Lake project seems to lend credence to the adage. With a few weeks still left for us to tolerate Aquino’s presidency, we are concerned it won’t be the only failure. In the short term that might be for the best; Singson is correct about perceptions, and the gaping holes in the Laguna Lake project’s plan likely means other hoped-for projects have similar flaws. That, however, does nothing to solve the country’s real problem, the lack of infrastructure, and that is ultimately our misfortune. It makes for an accurate legacy for the ineffective and divisive Aquino, but only extends the burdens we all share, and will bear for years to come.