Our infrastructure handicap | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

Our infrastructure handicap

/ 10:18 PM January 06, 2014

Anyone who travels around the region would be quite aware of how far we have fallen behind in many ways, not the least of which is in the quantity and quality of basic public infrastructure. A visit to any of our closest neighbors would probably leave a Filipino somewhat depressed and envious because of the glaring disparity, which becomes immediately apparent the moment you step out of the plane and into their impressive airport terminals.

What is wrong with Philippine infrastructure? To my mind, the problem boils down to three things: one, we don’t have enough of them; two, they are not integrated and coordinated; and three, they are improperly distributed. As a result, our competitiveness as an economy is severely handicapped.

Why don’t we have enough infrastructure? I could cite at least three reasons. First, government doesn’t have enough money. Our government budget has traditionally been inadequate to be able to devote an ample share to infrastructure (or to any other priority concern, for that matter). Too many taxpayers cheat on their taxes, and too many tax collectors keep for themselves what taxpayers decide to shell out. This one we can all blame on ourselves, and it will take a fundamental change in all of us to get out of this predicament. Second, too much of our budget simply goes to repair and maintenance of calamity-damaged infrastructure year after year. This problem is somewhat unique to us, as none of our more progressive neighbors has to contend with the number of typhoons and floods we face year after year. There is little we can do about this one; it is one of our misfortunes as a nation. Third, too much of our infrastructure is below standard (and that’s why they are so easily damaged and have to be repaired and rebuilt so often) because too many people are out to make money from government construction projects.

It’s bad enough that we don’t have enough infrastructure. We also cannot get the most out of what little that we have because they are not well-integrated and coordinated. In the 1990s, government put together the blueprint of a seamless intermodal transport system for the country, so that one could readily move across land, air and water transport by ensuring that the various modes of transport connect to one another. Yet not even our three existing mass rail transit lines in Metro Manila were designed to connect to one another seamlessly! And many people wonder why government did not build another several hundred meters of railway that would have connected the airport terminals to the commuter rail lines. (Someone whispered to me that taxi operators, worried about losing lucrative airport business, were behind that decision—something I find easy to believe.) And so, the seamless intermodal system we’ve been envisaging since two decades ago remains largely a blueprint to this day.


The problem is not just in transport infrastructure. In telecommunications, much remains to be desired in the way the phone companies should be interconnected.  Even our rural farm infrastructure is too fragmented. We have built very good irrigation systems in some provinces, post-harvest facilities in others, and farm-to-market roads in still others, but seemingly never all together as a complete, complementary package in the same place.

The third problem is that our infrastructure facilities are not properly distributed, whether on grounds of efficiency or equity.  For obvious reasons, the lion’s share of our infrastructure budget goes to Metro Manila projects, something our Mindanao friends have always loudly complained about. We did make a conscious effort in the 1990s to devote a growing share of the infrastructure budget to Mindanao, which resulted in a more than doubling of that share within the Ramos administration. But the other problem is in the way infrastructure allocation is too often determined by political considerations—thanks to the pork barrel and the “congressional initiative” system—rather than the objective substantive criteria that our planners painstakingly develop and attempt, unsuccessfully, to apply.

What needs to be done?  We’ve already mentioned the need for fundamental changes in ourselves if we are to overcome our perennial lack of government resources. Until then, our next best bet is to continue tapping private sector resources to provide much of our needed infrastructure via private-public partnership (PPP) schemes. But as we all know, government’s much-vaunted PPP program has not been a particular source of pride for this administration so far.

It’s about time we seriously implemented the intermodal transport system and ensured stronger integration and coordination of the entire infrastructure system. A good start would be to put transport and public works and highways under the same department, and information and communication technology in another. In my days as head of the National Economic and Development Authority in the 1990s, we had to mediate for several months between the Department of Public Works and Highways (for the C-5 road) and the Department of Transportation and Communication (for the LRT-2 line) in their quarrel over who should go over or under the Aurora Boulevard-Katipunan intersection. The issue would not have arisen had both departments been one.


Guess what: The above article, with minor edits, was written more than 11 years ago, a year before I started writing for the Inquirer. I find it sad that I could just as well have written it yesterday.

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