Friday, September 21, 2018
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No Free Lunch

When infra spending goes nowhere

There’s a stretch of mountain road in Los Baños, Laguna, that goes from the national highway beside the municipal hall into Mount Makiling, winding through to the Boy Scouts Jamboree site, and into the UP Los Baños campus. It’s an alternate route into the campus and beyond, if one wants to avoid the congested traffic leading to where the national highway and the main access road to UPLB meet. It is variously known as the Mount Makiling Ecological Road, Jamboree Road, or Magnetic Road (based on a short stretch of it known as Magnetic Hill, where a freewheeling vehicle would roll uphill, supposedly pulled by magnetic forces).

A few years ago, something disturbing happened on that two-lane mountain road. It was widened to four lanes in a very short stretch running a few hundred meters long, for no apparent sensible reason. Traffic there has always been sparse; on a typical day, one would encounter no more than 10 to 15 other vehicles while traversing that entire 5.5-kilometer stretch. And yet, being a national road, the Department of Public Works and Highways saw it fit to spend a reported P17 million to widen a short portion of that road, cutting down some 30 fully grown mahogany and kapok trees in the process.

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It was the cutting down of those trees that gained the ire of local oppositors, as it was reportedly backed by a questionable environmental clearance. The environmental protests briefly caught the attention of national dailies, but the utter folly of the road-widening project to begin with merited no comment. Anyone familiar with that winding mountain road could plainly see that widening the entire stretch of that road would be an unrealistic and prohibitive engineering challenge. And yet, the short stretch was widened anyway, even as it was obvious that the work couldn’t go beyond that.

I couldn’t help wonder if they did it just for the sake of spending money, and if certain pockets benefited from all-too-common kickbacks, along with proceeds from the valuable timber cut down in the process. The project’s critics believed it was the latter that was the main motivation at the outset. Whatever it was, one thing is plain to see: the widening project that cost millions of pesos coupled with substantial environmental damage led to no conceivable additional benefit to society. Whatever happened to cost-benefit analysis on public investments?

I dwell on this particular example of infrastructure spending, which happens to be literally close to home for me, in light of observations I’ve repeatedly been hearing lately of similar road projects of dubious benefit being done all over. Motorists regularly traversing the South Luzon Expressway, for example, express wonder over the repaving (“reblocking”) currently underway on portions where there had been no apparent need for it. Other such reblocking projects in the recent past have been similarly questioned.

In a recent talk, UP economics professor Emmanuel de Dios pointed out that the value of the government’s much-vaunted “Build, build, build” program lies in how more infrastructure could boost productivity in the economy. This is obvious for things like new bridges, railway lines or farm-to-market roads, or new or upgraded ports and airports.

But when infrastructure construction has no apparent incremental impact on productivity, such as pointless road widening on Magnetic Road and seemingly premature reblocking on various roads and highways, the whole point of the “Build, build, build” is lost.

With so much more of the national budget now being allotted to infrastructure, it’s critical that we make sure such spending will truly lead to expanded economic activity in the country. Dr. De Dios notes that the Philippine economy, even with a faster 6- to 7-percent annual growth now, could actually have been growing significantly more, if not for various self-inflicted drags that government itself puts in the way. And among them is the persistent inability to do infrastructure right.

We can throw all the money we want at it, but unless and until our infrastructure agencies clean up their act, I’m afraid “Build, build, build” will be remembered for being little more than a catchy slogan.

cielito.habito@gmail.com

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