When President Aquino entered office in July 2010, there was big talk in the crony press about ”Aquinomics,” as though the country had lucked into an economic wunderkind in the mold of John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman. It was said that a chariot called “public-private partnership” would be the vehicle that would modernize the nation’s infrastructure and utilities.
After five years, it’s been one heck of a ride, sometimes sure-footed, sometimes bumpy, and sometimes like a roller-coaster.
The metaphor of a ride is apt, because we will focus today, by force of circumstance, on the nation’s transport system.
Convergence of transport problems
As if conspiring against President Aquino during his final year in office, multiple problems lately sprouted up to underscore how poorly, how incompetently, and how shortsightedly his administration has managed the nation’s transport system.
There’s a reason why transport infrastructure are described as a system. They are designed to enable us to cohere into one economy and one nation.
But today, anywhere we turn in our transport system, it seems like there is disaster, distress, dysfunction and danger. There seems to be no one in charge. When you board public transport in this country, you lay your life on the line.
Consider the news reports coming straight from the headlines:
On Thursday, July2, in Ormoc City, Leyte, a motorized banca, ominously called Kim Nirvana-B, capsized 200 meters away from the port of Ormoc just minutes after leaving port.
The Philippine Coast Guard reported 38 deaths and some 19 persons missing out of the 173 passengers on board, who were bound for Pilar, Camotes, Cebu.
The tragedy is just the latest in a long litany of maritime disasters in the country, some of which are in the record books rivaling or surpassing the Titanic disaster.
With this latest incident, we face once again the reality that in our archipelagic nation, poorly-maintained, loosely-regulated ferries form the backbone of maritime transportation. We have done little to modernize maritime transport since the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster in 1987 when the Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker, leaving more than 4,300 dead.
NAIA a high-risk airport
In a paper released in June, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) disclosed that member airlines are seriously concerned about the safety of the ground movement operations and management of the airside infrastructure at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).
Global airlines have tagged NAIA as one of the high-risk airports in the Asia-Pacific region because of unresolved safety concerns as well as poor infrastructure.
“IATA is gravely concerned with a number of operational issues including some that may compromise safety of airline operations,” IATA said.
It pointed out that NAIA was routinely characterized by airlines as one of the top high-risk airports in the Asia-Pacific from 2010 to 2013 because of air traffic management issues, including extended holding, vectors and delays and non-standard air traffic control procedures, among others.
This prompted IATA regional director for safety and flight operations (Asia-Pacific) Blair Cowles to issue an Operational Notice to all airline members flying to the Philippines via NAIA last May 26.
“This Operational Notice alerts airlines to the ongoing risk to aircraft operations at Manila arising from unaddressed deficiencies in airside ground movement aids,” Cowles said.
He pointed out that the association has received an increasing number of airline safety reports since 2012 highlighting deficiencies in airport signage, markings, lighting and charting, particularly at the intersection of Runway 31/13 and Runway 06/24, also known as “hotspot” area.
The IATA report is only the latest blow against the hapless NAIA. In the past, it was unceremoniously rated as one of the worst airports in the world.
From his first day in office, Aquino was urged to seriously consider the transfer of the Manila international airport to Clark, which has the runways and superb natural endowments for aviation. The project has not moved.
Mass rail transit collapse
3. In Metro Manila, the backbone of mass transport–the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) and the Light Rail Transit (LRT)–has been rendered prostrate and limping, while the system awaits long-needed upgrades and repairs.
Half-a-million people use the system daily. And many sometimes have to walk kilometers just to get their rides.
The most that the government has offered are its apologies to the public. People are now demanding that President Aquino should make good on his promise to tie himself to the tracks if he cannot fix the rail systems.
The MRT-LRT crisis is rooted in incompetence and corruption. The MRT went bust soon after Aquino took over, as its maintenance contract was stymied by an attempt at extortion.
4. Even on the basic challenge of registering motor vehicles in the country, the administration has proved overmatched. Automobile owners cannot get their auto registration plates because the agency in charge cannot do the job.
And we’re not even talking yet about the adequacy or quality of road infrastructure in the country, which is a perennial complaint of the business sector.
The indispensable investor
Managing a nation’s transport infrastructure requires vision and a dedicated mindset.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a figure from a different era but his description of what his government must do to meet America’s needs still rings true:
He said: “Survey all our national transportation needs, determine the most efficient, economical means of transportation, and substitute a national policy for national lack of planning, and encourage that growth and expansion most healthful to the general welfare.”
He declared that the US government must be “the indispensable investor” in the nation’s infrastructure. America should not depend on the nation’s financiers and oligarchs to get the job done.
We need the same kind of bold and tenacious leadership to make the colossal investment in transport infrastructure–or indeed, in all kinds of infrastructure to fill the infrastructure gap that’s holding our country and our people back.
Solutions to our infrastructure woes will not happen without a salutary change of administration, and absent a President who is committed to make things work.