LAST week, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) reported that the government as soon as the end of this quarter may begin the first steps in the project tender process for a proposed 653-kilometer, $3.8 billion railroad connecting Manila with Batangas and Luzon’s southernmost point at Matnog, Sorsogon.
If the news elicited any reaction at all from the public, it was probably ambivalence. The enthusiastic proposal of grandiose projects that fail to even start happens so frequently, it’s almost a tradition.
There is frankly nothing about the proposed North-South Railway project to suggest it will be any different. For one thing, the timing of the announcement, coming as it did before the feasibility study for the project is even completed, seems suspiciously political. The nearly P170-billion price tag is clearly beyond the country’s means; ADB emphasized that the project would require “significant international sponsor and financier participation.” And the project is to be made part of the Public-Private Partnership program, a development framework that is rapidly falling out of fashion elsewhere in the world and has been more difficult than anticipated to implement here.
All of these are fundamental reasons why the Aquino Administration should make the North-South Railway its priority project for the last year of President B.S. Aquino’s term.
Of course, the railway itself will have tremendous benefits for commuters and long-distance travelers between Manila and southern Luzon, and can be built to accommodate freight traffic as well. Beyond its practical benefits, however, achieving the goal of completing the railroad within a reasonable timeframe can address a whole host of institutional issues.
From a political standpoint, initiating the railway project – which will take years to complete even under the best of circumstances – can be a way for President Aquino to finally match actions to glib words about finding a successor to “continue his reforms” by giving a potential successor some actual reforms worth continuing. Even setting a modest, but realistic goal such as to have the project contract awarded and the project itself in an advanced state of design and preparation by the end of his term, problems such as the chronically bad interface between government agencies, incomplete, unnecessarily burdensome, or confusing investment and tax regulations, and excessive litigation will have to be addressed.
Likewise, solutions will need to be in place to address issues such as the relocation of “informal settlers” and property ownership disputes along the proposed railroad’s right-of-way. Improving security and preventing crime is also a key issue; the recent derailment of a PNR commuter train was apparently caused by scavengers stealing metal track fittings to sell for scrap, as have been many similar incidents in the past.
Aquino and his tiresome spokespeople have spent five years repeating the same weary platitudes about his administration’s commitment to building infrastructure and very little but further deterioration has occurred. Committing to beginning an audaciously large-scale infrastructure project that will not be completed until long after he is gone – perhaps so long that his contribution to it will be forgotten – will demonstrate that Aquino at least believes his own rhetoric, is willing to make a sincere effort to follow through on it, and contribute something tangible his successors can build on.