The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) has, for so long, been seen as a corrupt agency, one that is slow to act on the nation’s growing infrastructure needs. Over the last two decades, the refrain of remedies for this public perception of the DPWH has heard many repetitions of the prescription for “political will” to improve the pace and response of the agency. It needs to keep building new roads, bridges and government structures. It also needs to go over policies that deal with its contractors and cut red tape, combat allegations of rigged biddings and project cost padding. To be fair to the DPWH, it has been working toward those dual goals of improved transparency and better responsiveness for years.
What is political will, really? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “political intention or desire (in early use not as a fixed collocation); (later) specifically the firm intention or commitment on the part of a government to carry through a policy, especially one which is not immediately successful or popular.” In the context of governance, political will is remaining committed to a course of action, come what may, despite external political posturings that may hamper or block that course of action.
Enter Public Works Secretary Mark Villar, who has brought several fresh approaches to the table under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte—including harnessing satellite and geo-tagging technology to ensure that infrastructure projects declared on paper actually exist in the physical world.
“We are developing an app for geo-tagging our projects so there can no longer be ‘ghost projects,’” Villar said. “We will be able to use this app to verify that the project is actually there and check its status.”
Villar spoke before the Business Mirror Coffee Club forum, answering the questions journalists from the Aliw Media Group shot at him with both mindfulness and candor.
“In the past, we’ve black-listed contractors,” Villar said of the DPWH’s efforts to deal with delays in ongoing projects and the department’s efforts to ensure that the contractors granted project contracts are, indeed, capable of the work given to them. “Right now, we’re giving them time to catch up. In a month—at this point less than a month—if they haven’t caught up yet, we will cancel their contracts and begin the black-listing proceedings.”
“We have to do this on a case to case basis,” he said, responding to queries about whether black-listing contractors may result in project delays. “Of course we want to see that these projects are completed immediately, so we give them time to catch up with their slippages—but if there is no viable reason for them, then we need to cancel the contracts. If they really cannot handle [the projects], then we have no better choice than to cancel the contracts and award these to others who can complete the projects.”
BUSY BUT RESPONSIVE
“There are so many projects,” Villar said, responding to the question of what the country can expect from the DPWH as far as infrastructure projects are concerned. “If I list them all we may run out of time.” He did, however, list some of the projects in the DPWH pipeline.
“As for our major big-ticket projects, what we can expect this year are: The Harbor Link, which opens in June. The Harbor Link is the highway that connects the Port of Manila to the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX)—the R10. This means trucks from the harbor no longer need to pass through the City of Manila to get to the NLEX. We can also expect the first phase of the Laguna Lake Highway, from Rizal to Bicutan, the first 10-kilometer highway in Metro Manila. Eventually, the Laguna Lake Highway will reach Laguna and this will decongest the C-5. We’ve already ground-broken the C-6, another bypass road to Laguna. We’ve started the right of way acquisition for the connector road—this is also going to be a bypass road to EDSA. In addition to that, we can expect that within the first half of this year, we will open our first exit to the Skyway. The bridges across Pasig [river] are ongoing, starting with the Sta. Monica-Lawton [bridge].”
But wait, there’s more.
“We have the Davao Coastal Highway,” Villar said. “This year, we will start the Metro Cebu Expressway, the Bacolod Economic Highway, the Leyte Tide Embankment project. There are actually many big-ticket projects and masterplans under Build Build Build. This is the biggest budget in the government at P650 billion. We can expect major changes.”
Villar added: “In the first year and a half of the President, we were in a long planning stage. Now we can expect that the implementation is all systems go. Now we can expect to feel the effects of the Build Build Build program.”
These projects are being undertaken side by side with existing DPWH projects, Villar noted, adding that infrastructure projects, especially those that require plenty of time to complete, need continuity from administration to administration.
Villar was candid about the sources of funding for these projects: “We’ve approached Asian Development Bank (ADB) for loans, and JICA. The Chinese have also expressed interest in financing some of our major projects. The Philippines is in a good fiscal position. We have access to funds. In fact, the latest tools that we signed, the terms: 10-year grace period, interest rate of 1.5%, 30-year loan. The terms they’re giving us, we have access to very reasonable financing, at the same time, mataas yung return ng infrastructure projects. So it is money well-spent.”
Elaborating on the Chinese government’s offers, Villar said that China has gifted us with the two bridges that will soon span the Pasig river. The estimated value of these bridges, Villar said, is $70 million (P3.57 billion). “That’s just assistance from China.” He said “we still have to determine what participation we will have from China, but, definitely, they will participate.”
“The Panay-Guimaras-Negros bridge was a grant from China. The bridges were also given as a gift from China,” Villar added. “A grant is not a loan,” he clarified. The two bridges [across the Pasig river] are a gift. No strings attached.”
As for unfinished infrastructure leftover from previous administrations, Villar said, “we took inventory of the long-term projects—those five-years or longer—that remain unfinishe d and have identified what was wrong with them.
We were able to finish these during the first year” of the Duterte administration. He cited as an example the 11-year project known as the Cagayan de Oro Coastal road “that could not be finished because of right of way problems.
“The reality is that all we need to complete some projects is political will,” Villar said. “We have the power of eminent domain. If we really decide to expropriate these property for roads and other infrastructure, we can. It is just a matter of execution.”
“There are many projects, like the Mindanao Avenue Extension, and the Buendia Underpass in Makati City that have been stalled. As far as we are concerned, it doesn’t matter who began these projects. If they will prove helpful to the people, we will finish them. In the first year and a half, there were many projects that we fast-tracked so we could finish them—those were the President’s orders.”
BUILDING TO DEVELOP
Roads and bridges link communities to each other. These become the arteries of trade and commerce, and they literally pave the way to better livelihood and improved access to goods and services for the communities they link to each other and to the rest of the world.
In areas where poverty and poor economic opportunities spawn unrest, rebellion and crime, it is the roads and bridges that help make the difference. This is where the DPWH’s main duty lies: Creating those arteries and linkages so both people and communities can have better access to what they need and a way to provide what they can offer to others.
When asked what areas outside the capital constitute the DPWH’s list of priority areas, Villar replied: “There is no area that we will not [prioritize]. We have a presence in all areas. Mindanao has almost 40% of the budget. We have major, big-ticket projects in all areas all across the land. We have master plans for all areas. There is no region or area that will not be affected by the Build Build Build program. That is our commitment.”
“As for us, we are conceptualizing projects for all regions, for all areas,” he added. “There will be no place left behind under Build Build Build.”
Master planning, Villar explained, entails a process that starts with conducting a feasibility study of the project proposal.
“I’ll give you an example,” he said. “In the Zamboanga peninsula, we already have an existing master plan, the Mindanao Logistics Network. It’s an P80 billion master plan that will be finished in the next year or two. Within the central network, the Zamboanga peninsula seems to have lagged behind, so we also made a master plan for that, which is a package worth approximately P9 billion to pave all the roads and improve the road network that includes Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur. We finished the feasibility study for that project early this year. We closed the financing with the ADB a few months ago. We will be ready to implement this project by December. That is the process for a master plan.”
Master planning, Villar explained, involves presenting the completed masterplan to the NEDA for approval, after which funding will be found and the project implemented.
“In terms of absorptive capacity—our ability to obligate, to bill out—the absorptive rate of DPWH last year was 92%,” Villar said, speaking of the agency’s ability to take on projects, hire contractors and finance these projects. “That was the highest obligation rate and the highest budget for the DPWH. So far, we face many challenges—contractors sometimes complain that they cannot hire skilled workers. The reality with labor is that we have many skilled [construction] laborers overseas and they are coming home, the ones who worked in Saudi Arabia during its construction boom. They can come home and when they do, I foresee that the labor market will become more competitive and the labor demand will rise. The labor cost will also rise, but that’s okay. At least our countrymen will have jobs. If that’s the worst case scenario, that the demand and cost for [construction] labor will rise, that jobs will be created for our countrymen so they can come home from overseas, it is not a bad thing.”
WORKING THROUGH CONFLICT, DISASTERS
In conflict areas, such as some parts of Mindanao, public works projects are plagued by less mundane things—attacks by lawless groups and terrorists have claimed the lives of DPWH personnel.
Villar noted that while these incidents may be isolated, “we do sometimes have problems in these areas: Sometimes our equipment is burned, too. We coordinate with the Department of National Defense. In fact, we will begin a convergence program so [the DND] can mount projects with the DPWH, so they can safeguard DPWH projects in [conflict] areas. We can expect that, with the additional manpower the DND would be recruiting, the peace and order situation will be improving, especially where we have projects. They [the DND] will do all they can to protect the ‘Build Build Build’ projects.”
The unrest in Mindanao, at this point “has not had any major effect,” Villar said. “The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has its own DPWH which is independent from us,” he added. “The projects there are ongoing.”
Rebuilding the Islamic City of Marawi, he said, is underway and the DPWH is already working on restoring the infrastructure and roads within the main battle area of the city. “We already made a master plan for the road network, including the ring road. We’re searching for financing at this point, as the worth of the project is more than P10 billion. There was a provision ready for the Marawi budget.”
Once financing for the rest of the rebuilding is available and the procurement of materials is complete, “we expect to begin implementation this year.”
“For the initial relocation sites, we made the road network and drainage,” Villar said of the Marawi rehabilitation. “We already have the costings and master plan for the road network.”
Beyond the conflict areas, there are many areas of the Philippines that have been devastated by calamities and where rehabilitation and infrastructure upgrades are still sorely needed—and where the continuity of ongoing rehabilitation and infrastructure development must be ensured.
Noting that the President “is very active, is always the first
one on the ground” in a calamity area, Villar said that government emergency response is “now faster” when dealing with natural calamities.
“We have a standby fund,” Villar explained. “And if you see the latest calamities in Lanao and Biliran, the bridge repairs there have been very quick. In fact, two of them are passable at this point. Our reaction time for calamities is much faster now. We will be spending over P100 billion on programs to ensure that our infrastructure—buildings, roads and bridges—is seismic-rated. Also to build additional flood control structures. With that kind of investment, we’ll be able to feel the improvements over the next few years, in terms of our preparedness for calamities.”
Political will in your roads, bridges and large infrastructure, people? This is what the DPWH now offers and it has been a long time coming. G