If there were any illusions that President B.S. Aquino 3rd harbored any sort of sincere intentions to pursue the physical development of this country, he quickly dispelled them with his behavior in marking the first anniversary of Typhoon Yolanda.
That was not a surprise, of course; most everyone except his few remaining indulgent supporters in the media and his own inner circle expected him to be rude and defensive, and he did not fail to live up to it, first by pointedly ignoring Tacloban City—which as the hardest-hit area has been the focus of world attention since day one of the disaster—and second by delivering completely predictable public comments on the reconstruction effort, whining about criticisms of the government’s unambitious efforts and stressing that the typhoon’s survivors should be grateful that anything at all has been accomplished.
To add insult to injury, during his otherwise forgettable remarks, Aquino announced that the government was working on a plan—a plan which no one had previously heard of, and might not actually have existed until he opened his mouth in front of the press—to relocate Leyte’s main airport from Tacloban to neighboring Palo, at a cost of some P12 billion.
Aquino’s vague explanation, related in palengkero-level Tagalog, was that Tacloban’s Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport is susceptible to storm surge, and that its being heavily damaged by Yolanda caused delays in setting up and managing relief efforts. The airport either has to be moved to safer location, Aquino said, or the government would have to invest in building a seawall to protect it from future storms.
The proposal is completely asinine for several reasons. The location of an airport in Palo would be no safer than in Tacloban. If anything, Palo was hit even harder by Typhoon Yolanda than Tacloban was; the center of the storm actually passed closer to Palo. The destruction of Palo probably created more of the disaster management problems bewailed by President Aquino than the damage in Tacloban did, since most of the Region VII government offices were located in Palo.
There is also a case to be made that Aquino himself contributed to the level of damage suffered by the Tacloban airport, and is citing problems that are at least partly his fault as reasons to abandon it. Earlier in 2013, P718.75 million of a P1 billion budget for airport upgrades (out of a total project cost of P2.1 billion) was diverted—with Aquino’s approval—to the illegal “disbursement acceleration program” (DAP). Those funds were intended for work on the airport’s taxiway, apron, and shore protection, and despite reassurances that the upgrades would still be completed, no progress was made for several months, prompting an alarmed Eastern Visayas Chamber of Commerce and Industry (EVCCI) to forward a resolution to Aquino calling for the restoration of the funding. That resolution was rebuffed by the President when it was presented to him at the 40th annual Philippine Business Conference, which incidentally was held just about two weeks before Yolanda struck.
Granted, even if Aquino had changed his mind after being given the chamber’s resolution, it would have already been too late, and the work planned almost certainly would not have completely protected the airport against a 20-foot storm surge. But it would have most likely at least mitigated the damage the airport suffered, and made it easier to put the place to use in the aftermath of the typhoon. Using the airport’s lack of protective structures as an excuse to pursue a politically motivated and unreasonably expensive alternative no one actually needs is irresponsible enough—that those protections are missing because the one proposing the alternative took them away in the first, is criminal.
Thankfully, perhaps, the political motivation immediately caught everyone’s attention, and that attention will hopefully make any pursuit of the proposed Palo airport project extremely problematic for the Aquino regime. Palo, unlike Tacloban, is controlled by close allies of Aquino, the Petilla clan. The current Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla and his parents Leopoldo E. Petilla and Remedios L. Petilla (the current mayor of Palo) have passed the governorship of Leyte, the mayor’s office in Palo, and the 1st Leyte Congressional District seat back-and-forth amongst themselves for years —a dubious history that might suggest that if the Palo airport project were to actually push through, it would probably not be a model of public works management ethics and reliability.
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Another example of how not to pursue infrastructure projects can be seen in the controversial uncertainty now surrounding the Cavite-Laguna Expressway (CALAX) bid award. In June, four bidders—San Miguel Corp. (SMC) unit Optimal Infrastructure Development, Team Orion (a consortium of Ayala’s AC Infrastructure Holdings and Aboitiz Land), Metro Pacific Investments Corp.’s MPCALA Holdings and MTD Philippines—submitted bids for the P35.4 billion project. SMC filed the highest, as it included a bid premium of P20.1 billion, which was nearly double the P11.66 billion and P11.33 billion, respectively, offered by Team Orion and Metro Pacific. MTD Philippines trailed the lot with a premium offer of P922 million.
SMC should have won the bid, having submitted the highest one, but made a stupid clerical error and misdated its bid security coverage by four days, thus not providing the full 180-day bond required by the bid specifications. SMC’s bid was subsequently disqualified, and the award given to Team Orion, the next highest bidder. SMC immediately ran to President Aquino to complain, and on June 30 he signed an order suspending implementation of the Department of Public Works and Highways’ resolution to disqualify Optimal Infrastructure.
Progress on the matter has been stalled since then, and there is no good reason why it should be. SMC blew it; the rules were not followed, and if an enterprise that large and that experienced does not have the resources or attention to detail to make sure its bid package meets the requirements, it probably should not be entrusted with a large, complex construction project worth billions of pesos.
Even so, President Aquino is not sure he agrees, announcing at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines’ forum toward the end of last month that he is “inclined to think that a re-bid will be the proper course of action on this particular issue,” because the government would have to explain why it decided to pass up a P9 billion bonus.
Again, there is a word that describes that sort of point of view (which is shared by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in stark contrast to just about every other business group in the country), and that word is: Asinine.
First of all, “rebidding the project” would simply be cover for awarding it to SMC, since the bid amounts are already known —unless all the current bidders are disqualified, which would unfairly punish the other three for SMC’s failure to proofread its documents. Second, it completely wrecks any remaining confidence (if there still is any) in the Philippines’ institutional framework for project bids and awards. And finally, Aquino’s greed-bound attention to the excess P9 billion included in SMC’s bid—an obnoxiously excessive amount compared to the other bids, and one that very likely has no rational justification other than SMC wanted this project really, really badly—completely ignores the fact that the amount would eventually come from the pockets of ordinary citizens and businesses who use the new highway.
This kind of uncertainty and inconsistency has been going on for all four-plus years of the Aquino Administration, and it must stop. A good place for it to stop would be to tell Aquino and SMC to take the argument that the latter deserves the project and cram it, and award the project to the next-highest bidder, in accordance with the rules that everyone but SMC followed.