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Metro lockdowns and regional dev’t

The recurrent lockdowns in Metro Manila have somehow offered a boon to the administration in terms of some relief from the pressure of implementing all the 105 big-ticket infrastructure projects under its “Build, build, build” program. More importantly, the metro lockdowns also offer an opportunity toward accelerating the reduction of Metro Manila’s stifling socioeconomic influence as a primate city, by diverting project implementation activities to other regions.

The “Build, build, build” program, which is a major part of the socioeconomic policies of the Duterte administration, is supposed to usher in a “Golden Age of Infrastructure” in the country. The goals of the ambitious program are to reduce poverty, encourage economic growth, and reduce congestion in Metro Manila. In 2017, the program was launched with an initial slate of 75 big-ticket infrastructure projects, and in August 2020 the total number was increased to 105, to include infrastructure projects that would support the country’s recovery from the effects of the pandemic.

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The force majeure situation in Metro Manila created by the pandemic somehow lessened the pressure on the government to substantially complete the big-ticket projects within President Duterte’s term, either by slowing down or providing leeway for the skipping of project implementation in the metro. That shift in implementation focus should lead to the third goal of the “Build, build, build” program, which is the reduction of congestion in Metro Manila. Less COVID-19-affected regions offer the promise of realizing the third goal of the program, as greater attention can be paid to the age-old demographic and economic imbalance created by the Metro Manila primate city phenomenon that started during Spanish times when Manila was made the country’s port city.

Shifting project implementation along with funding resources to other regions that are relatively less vulnerable to the pandemic should be considered an opportunity to accelerate their development, through the demonstrated multiplier effects of infrastructure project implementation and operation. Infrastructure projects being implemented in advance especially in other regional centers will accelerate development in such areas, turning them into countermagnets against the resource-

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siphoning influence of Metro Manila, which already accounts for 36 percent of the country’s GDP. Turning these regional areas into new metropolitan centers should correct the

spatio-socioeconomic imbalance obtaining in the country as the other cities’ production factors are enhanced to attract investments, reduce import leakages, and divert migration away from Metro Manila. The capital already holds 16 percent of the national population within an area of only 63,300 hectares.

Another opportunity that presents itself to counter the primacy of Metro Manila is the program of the government to formulate Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Development (SUID) master plans for highly urbanized cities in other regions, with the aim of developing them into metropolitan centers that will accommodate the influx of people and investments. The metropolitan master plans also propose infrastructure projects that promote the “Build, build, build” program by following the principles of transport connectivity, urban socioeconomic concentration, and vulnerability reduction. A total of 29 metropolitan area studies covering the entire archipelago have been completed recently and are now ready for implementation.

Clearly, not all the announced big- and small-ticket projects can be completed within the term of President Duterte. The administration now aims to complete only a little over half of the big-ticket projects, with the remaining projects targeted to be finished up to 2028. Although ambitious, the dream of a “Golden Age of Infrastructure” is worth pursuing if we are to become an upper middle-income country. The pressure will have to be passed on to the next administration, and we can only hope the coming elections will produce the needed leadership that will pursue the dream.

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Meliton B. Juanico is a retired professor of geography at UP Diliman and a licensed environmental planner.

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