Toward the end of last month, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) presented a transport “dream plan” for Mega Manila—the area comprising the National Capital Region, Region 3, and Region 4-A—which proposed, among other things, 137 kilometers of new urban roads and upgrades to the existing road network; 426 kilometers of intercity expressways connected by an additional 78 kilometers of urban expressways; 246 and 72 kilometers, respectively, of main and secondary commuter rail lines; improvements to the traffic management system; and upgrades to the systems for managing ground transportation such as buses and jeepneys. The price tag for all this comes to around P2.3 trillion, which JICA believes the government can easily fund by 2030 if the current forecasts for the Philippines’ economic growth over the next 15 to 20 years are reasonably accurate.
It was called a “dream plan,” perhaps, because the Project Manager who presented it, Dr. Shizuo Iwata, is the same Dr. Iwata who back in mid-November of last year told a forum hosted by the Management Association of the Philippines that “he was tired of doing all these studies,” because none of the suggestions offered by his team—or anyone else, for that matter—ever saw the light of day, and that Metro Manila’s traffic congestion and the Philippines’ infrastructure issues in general, despite being relatively easy to identify and understand, seem to just be growing steadily worse as time passes.
I believe the shortcomings in the entire infrastructure system of the Philippines—which includes not only roads, rails, and other forms of transportation, but basic utilities like electricity and water, communications systems, and the systems that move critical resources like food and fuel—can be summed up in very simple terms: The government of this country has, over an extended period of time, progressively delegated almost all of its responsibility to the private sector, to the extent that any large-scale and long-term planning has become impossible.
The country accepts this for several reasons, not all of which are easy to refute. Since the time of the latter years of the Marcos era government, management of infrastructure has been characterized by gross inefficiency and corruption of one sort or another, part of which can be blamed on deeply-ingrained patronage in the political culture, and partly on a chronic absence of technical ability within government agencies. The nature of the political system after Marcos works against making grand, sustainable plans as well; with no real ideologically-distinct political parties, the initiatives of any administration are not grounded in clear economic and social perspectives, but on the individual ideas—valid or otherwise—of the President, who has a limited time to make his or her “mark” on the country, and thus tends to favor short-term and essentially one-off initiatives over building systems. And while it is true enough that the government in the past often has not had the financial resources to appropriately address infrastructure needs (that is, after all, how the Philippines ended up with the dubiously unique jeepney), that is not really the case today—except that patronage politics basically requires that vast sums of money are thrown away on irrelevancies to keep everyone in line just enough to create some semblance of political stability.
Given all that, the myth—which under present circumstances has some basis in truth—that private enterprise can do a better job than the government of providing essential services like roads to travel on, buses and trains to move people around, electricity to light their homes, and water to wash their unmentionables is not hard to sell. And it might even be completely true, if the private enterprises to whom the government has bequeathed these responsibilities were really subject to the forces of a free market, or in the unavoidable absence of it, firm regulation to counter the unfair advantages conferred by captive markets. Obviously, neither of those things exist here, and no effort to create either of them has been made for so long that the Philippines finds itself in a bit of a dilemma: With poor infrastructure repeatedly being cited as one of the biggest obstacles to the country’s being able to take advantage of the investment potential it can rightly claim to have in a number of respects, it has left itself without any apparent means to improve that infrastructure in order to attract that investment, because it has adopted the attitude that the investment is needed before infrastructure can be improved.
Yes, those of us who make a living one way or another observing this country’s economic environment and trying to find ways to improve it do indeed spend an awful lot of time scratching their heads.
There are no simple solutions to the bigger problem; it is not enough to say simply, “Loosen restrictions on foreign investment to encourage infrastructure investment,” or “Alter the system of government to make administration more efficient,” or “Nationalize public utilities and transit systems,” because it is that sort of glib approach to major problems that got the country into the mess in which it finds itself now. By the same token, we can be fairly certain that random heterodox ideas like “transit terminals” that only encourage commuters to find ways to avoid them (those of us who commute regularly from Cavite have become expert at bypassing the overcrowded, time-consuming chaos that is the ‘Southwest Integrated Provincial Terminal’), a “river ferry” service—an idea that has been repeatedly proven to be an economic dud for more than two decades—on boats people fleeing the fall of South Vietnam would have avoided out of embarrassment, and a proposal to build, of all things to conceive in flood- and earthquake-prone Metro Manila, a P135-billion subway are not worthwhile solutions, either.
Where the country should start is do a comprehensive gap analysis: “This is where we are now, there is where we need to be in X number of years.” Agencies like JICA, even though their efforts might be offered with a sense of resigned futility, have done the Philippines a service by at least providing part of that answer. Now all we need are some leaders who will worry more about closing those gaps, and less about which projects will allow them to hang a dedication plaque to themselves the quickest.