IT now takes almost a semester to ship a Balikbayan box from North America into Metro Manila households. This is an addition to the ever-increasing proofs of Stone Age mobility for cargo in the economic center, which, instead of being reversed, has been worsened by a government that literally swears by “straight paths.” In an age that places premium on speed, and with the speedy, efficient movement of cargo and the supply chain now a field of specialization in some MBA schools, there is zero rationale for Balikbayan boxes to be tied up at the Manila ports.
But that is a sad fact of life. And Mr. Aquino will probably exit from the presidency with the ports still clogged and cargoes moving at snail pace.
Don’t even ask for the “whys.” Because it is a sad commentary on a bureaucracy that has never heard of the word “praxis” – or the gap between theory and practice. Because the bigger story behind the delayed Balikbayan box is the great disconnect between the government’s lip service to modernizing the country’s frayed infra and putting in place a 21st century multi-modal transport network. And the delays and meandering that take place on the implementation side.
Ok, what is the public face of that great disconnect? What is the “Exhibit A” of the gap between what the government has promised to do (the commitment to rebuild the frayed infra with speed and efficiency) and what is being done at the level of actual implementation? Easy to answer. The delayed “connector roads” of Metro Manila. Yes, it is the truth and not a play on words. The Exhibit A of the great disconnect has been the failure to build “connectors roads” with a sense of urgency.
The “connector roads” are two major projects from as many corporations with toll road operation expertise: the MPTC and the SMC-Citra. And the bigger one is MPTC’s 13.4 km expressway (main roads plus spur roads) that would connect the NLEX with the SLEX with a link to Tondo, the heart of the port area. As proposed, it will be a four-lane elevated road right up the PNR tracks to avoid the messy right-of-way problems that normally cripple major infra projects.
The new elevated expressway proposed by MPTC in the heart of Manila has been designed to fuse with the Skyway project of SMC-Citra, which is an enhancement of the SLEX.
Mr. Aquino long ago green-lighted the 13.4-km connector road project in January 2013. He even set a 2016 deadline for the completion of the project. Indeed, inaugurating an elevated, four-lane NLEX-SLEX connection with a link to the Manila port area, which also connects with the McArthur Highway in Bulacan, will vest him with the bragging rights on the infra-building record of his government.
But better will be the general boost that the road project, once completed, will give to the movement of cargo in and out of the piers bound for the factories and assembly lines of the metropolis. Also, cargoes to be moved from Southern Tagalog to Central and North Luzon or the other way around can be moved without hassle by using the SLEX – NLEX connector road.
The business community and the foreign chambers of commerce all say that the connector road project plus the SLEX enhancement will not only speed up the movement of vital cargo and help decongest Metro Manila’s clogged roads. The economic gains from the speedy movement of cargo would also be immense.
Ok, what is holding the main NLEX- SLEX connector road project? Where, precisely, are the snafus?
The proposal was an unsolicited one. So the government decided that it should go through the so-called Swiss challenge. Under that scenario, a competing bid may be offered but it should be better and more competitive than the original proposal to push the government into considering that competing bid. After flirting with the Swiss Challenge, the government changed its mind.
It then recommended a joint venture between the state and the private proponent on the grounds that public interest and common good would be better served by a joint venture. The government then dropped the JV idea, it was back to the Swiss challenge.
Right now, with the Swiss challenge unresolved, the government cannot seem to muster the energy to green light the connector road project. The problem, in short, has been essentially this: the flip-flopping of government.
In the long interregnum, in the wait for the final approval of the project, stuff can happen. Indeed, something happened. The North – South Rail, designed to modernize and upgrade the train service between Metro Manila and Albay was finally approved as a priority project of the PPP. This would mean a messy construction overlap as both projects will use the PNR tracks.
The original connector road design will have to be overhauled and the original cost will be padded by an estimated P3 billion.
The flip-flopping can be shrugged off by government as “one of those things.” But it is not. A decongested port and the fast movement of cargo between and among the Southern Tagalog, Metro Manila and Central Luzon would result in great public relief and a giant boost to the national economy. It would even add one point or two to Mr. Aquino’s beloved GDP growth.