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Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead

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Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead

/ 01:14 AM February 20, 2014

The Philippines is 15-25 years behind the major countries in Asia when it comes to infrastructure. One of the world’s worst airports is a good start. Lack of political will (in this administration and also the previous ones) is one of the top reasons the Philippines lags behind other Asian economies. Opposition by some losers and well-intentioned but misguided critics is not far behind.

The one I’d like to focus on today is legal intervention. It seems that almost anything the government proposes to do someone objects to—and takes to a court that obligingly accepts the case, thereby putting the project on hold.

The two most recent ones are the P17.5-billion Cebu airport terminal and the P1.72-billion Automated Fare Collection System (AFCS). The winning bidders were chosen in an open competitive bidding process where every opportunity was given for raising questions and objections. By not doing so, the bidders accepted who their competitors were. But both projects were delayed because a losing bidder wouldn’t accept its loss. Maybe it had a good case, but why didn’t it raise the point during the bidding?

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And that’s what I’d like to suggest: that Congress pass a law allowing questioning of other bidders’ eligibility/capability only before a winner is chosen. Once a bidder has won the project, no complaint can be entertained. If Megawide Construction Corp. and its partner GMR Infrastructure Ltd. do have a conflict-of-interest issue, then this should have been raised and made known during the bidding.

The same holds true for the AFCS project. Awarding was delayed from December to Jan. 30, all because a disqualified bidder appealed to be reconsidered. The rule in a bidding process is that the bidder must pass technical evaluation before its financial bid is opened. E-Trans Solution Joint Venture failed to pass the technical evaluation. If it had failed once, what would a second look do when all the documents are the same, anyway? We have to stop stopping progress.

It’s the same with nongovernment organizations. Too often well-intentioned people, but without the expertise to fully understand the issue, or so obsessed with their single issue, can’t apply a reasonable balance.

Take the proposed 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Subic. Several environmentalist groups filed for a Writ of Kalikasan at the Supreme Court to legally suspend RP Energy’s land lease and coal financing agreement. And progress was put on hold. We ARE going to have blackouts, our reserves are just too thin, and power plants are getting too old. They will, frighteningly soon, need to be replaced. Coal is a dirty fuel, and that is not acceptable, but with today’s technology the emissions from a modern coal-fired power plant can be within international limits. Yes, there are other, cleaner fuels, but they aren’t commercially viable. The cost to use them would be prohibitive and everyone is already complaining of cost today.

So what do you want: cleanly produced electricity at high cost, or acceptably cleanly produced electricity at lower cost, or blackouts from time to time? We need a balanced approach. We don’t live in a perfect world and we can’t have perfect solutions. We have to accept the best compromise.

As then president Fidel Ramos rightly said during our last power crisis (remember that? no power 8-12 hours a day), “No power is more expensive.” Well, we’re going to have no power again. We’d better stop opposing construction of new plants.

We have to stop stopping national progress for personal gain, or opposition based on but one point, no matter how valid. We—the courts, and sometimes the administration—have to stop accepting delay that is not in the best national interest. Modern successes were achieved by countries where the leadership decided what society needed best, and went ahead and did it, ignoring vested-interest opposition. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead”—that’s how you win wars, that’s how a nation progresses.

If President Aquino wants to leave a legacy, it should be this: In the last two years of my presidency I got things done by deciding what was best for a nation and not accepting opposition to it.

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The Chief Justice must play her part, too. She must instruct the lower courts to be more discretionary on what they accept. And for the Supreme Court to be equally discerning. If laws are needed to act in this way, then request such laws from Congress. The one I’ve suggested at the beginning of this piece can be the first.

Another reason cited why the Philippines is behind its neighbors in terms of infrastructure is the low level of spending. The Philippine government allots a measly 2-3 percent of its gross domestic product for the construction of infrastructure projects. Major Asian economies spend an average of 5 percent.

Infrastructure-related expenditures are projected to rise to 3.1 percent of GDP this year, or an estimated P400 billion. The amount will rise further to P600 billion (4.1 percent of GDP) in 2015 and P800 billion (5 percent of GDP) in 2016. But for the country to be at par with its neighbors, the recommended spending level on infrastructure (5 percent of GDP) must be implemented NOW, not in 2016.

As I’ve said over and over again, action, tough action, has to happen. The time for plans, for discussion, for caution is long gone. According to the Social Weather Stations some 11.8 million families need to be brought out of poverty, and 12.1 million Filipinos need jobs. It won’t happen with plans (they exist already, anyway); it will happen with determined “full speed ahead” action.

“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” was said by US Adm. David Farragut during the American Civil War, which they won.

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TAGS: airports, American Civil War, Automated Fare Collection System, GMR Infrastructure Ltd., infrastructure, Megawide Construction Corp., Philippine Airports, President Aquino, Supreme Court, US Adm. David Farragut, writ of kalikasan
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