The gangrene that could subvert ‘Build, Build, Build’

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MARLEN V. RONQUILLO

THE one program of the DU30 administration that gets total, unequivocal and unqualified support is the infrastructure component aptly called “Build, Build, Build.” The country’s fraying infrastructure, indeed, justifies the program’s P3.6 trillion funding from 2018 to 2020. If there is a country that needs an urgent infra modernization program, it is the Philippines, a regional laggard.

The ratification of the first phase of the TRAIN tax reform measure by the two chambers of Congress also reveals the seriousness of the national effort to raise part of the funding requirement for the massive infra program.

Most major acts of government, from wars to the peacetime effort of infra modernization, need the complementary revenue-raising efforts. The TRAIN is complementary to “Build, Build, Build.”

All is well for the most ambitious infra program in Philippine history. Until, the unraveling of a P224.5 million funding for the San Jose Airport in the fourth district of Camarines Sur. On the San Jose airport project, this fundamental question arises: Is there any seriousness devoted to the type of projects that gets funded under the ambitious, massively funded program? And this one, too: Are there studies conducted on feasibility and viability of projects to be funded by the infra program.


Are there benchmarks, parameters and metrics used to determine what gets priority funding, given the strain the infra program will place on the precious funds of government? And the need to conserve on the precious money of the state?

On the San Jose Airport, the answer to the four critical questions is nada, zilch, zero.

On the surface, the complaints against the P224.5 million funding for the San Jose Airport can be dismissed by the project proponents as part of the bitter political rivalry between the Villafuertes – the clan that oppose the project – and the Fuentebellas, the political family that pushed for the project. Both are prominent political families of CamSur, though the Fuentebellas have seen their influence limited to the fourth district, the poorer, underdeveloped part of the province.

What the Fuentebellas want, the Villafuertes oppose. There is a long narrative to support this angle. The airport row is an extension of that long-running political rivalry.

On a deeper look, however, the issues that surround the airport funding are serious and pertinent. And this central issue is raised. Is the irrational exuberance for “Build, Build, Build” leading to the wasted funds and the funding of possible white elephants?

Everything about the San Jose Airport project leads to this scenario: Funding was made with irrational exuberance that could only lead to a white elephant outcome.

CamSur, as the province is now known, has a gateway, the airport in the main city of Naga. A 2014 study has recommended an upgrade of the existing gateway in Naga, which is host to most things important in a province. Naga City is the center of the province and the main city of a substantial area of the Bicol region. That, alone, makes the airport project a case of political whimsy, not a carefully studied one.

The so-called “ Naga-Pili” area is the main trading, tourism and travel hub of CamSur. And the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) has data on this. The NEDA had previously recommended the upgrade of the Naga City Airport as the most cost-effective, most viable aviation project in the CamSur area. The fourth district of the Fuentebellas is the backward part of CamSur and project implementation there—there is an apt phrase for this—has been unblemished by success. The Partido Development Authority, the San Jose project proponent, is a public corporation mired in debt. The Regional Development Council (RDC) has held no public discussions on the merits and viability of the San Jose Airport.

Data and history say that the P224.5-million spending will be a giant waste of public money.

The heavily funded San Jose Airport is 40 kilometers from the Naga City Aiport. Too far to be a satellite airport of Naga City like the set-up of the three NAIAs, and too near to be a competitive airport to Naga City.

Lastly, there is this important point. A major city is defined by the quality of its educational institutions, first and foremost, and in the Bicol region, Naga City is that unquestioned educational center.

Why was the RDC ignored and the aviation master plan junked for a P224.5 million giveaway to an airport project that may turn out into a gangrene, a taint, a tar, a smear on the lofty program of “Build, Build, Build”?

There are only two sane, viable options for the San Jose Airport project. Defer the project. Then undertake an economic study under the NEDA to determine how much of the P224.5 million would be squandered once the project pushes through. Is it half of the P224.5 million? Will the entire sum just go to waste?

Right now, there is only one certainty. There is neither rational nor economic basis to fund the project.

But the bigger problem is the stain that the worthless project has cast on the lofty infra program of Mr. Duterte.

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