Published on page B2 of the November 28, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
I WAS IN INDONESIA AND THAILAND last week, and as always, came out feeling depressed and jealous.
In Indonesia, I noted that the entire road to Bogor, some 60 kilometers out of the capital, was a 2- to 3-lane expressway.
None of our expressways in the country goes that far.
My daily trip to work from my home in Los Baños, 55 km out of Magallanes, still involves some 12 km of a congested two-way "highway."
That stretch, which is just about a fifth of the way, already takes up about half the travel time.
Later in the week, still in Indonesia, I also found myself passing two expressways that actually crossed each other-something unheard of in our country.
We still boast a slightly higher average income than our Southern neighbor, and yet we now clearly lag well behind it in road infrastructure.
Out of the league
Flying on later to Thailand, the vast multitude of arriving tourists had us wait in line at the immigration counters for about an hour-and we had arrived at midnight!
I could only shake my head in jealousy as I saw for myself how far we have fallen behind this other neighbor of ours in attracting tourists. Bangkok also now boasts a subway system, in addition to its impressive "Skytrain" MRT that puts our own LRT-MRT system to shame by its superior efficiency.
And I remembered how way back in 1992, I and a couple of colleagues had gone on a study tour of some Thai villages, passing through hours and hours of expressways, a large part of it elevated.
Forget about Singapore and Malaysia; they are now out of our league. A visit to these neighbors of ours invariably leaves any Filipino with the same depressed and jealous feeling because of the glaring disparity, which is immediately apparent the moment you step out of the plane and into their impressive airport terminals.
Three things wrong
What is wrong with Philippine infrastructure? To my mind, there are three things wrong: One, we simply don't have enough of them; two, they are not integrated and coordinated, and three, they are improperly distributed.
Why don't we have enough infrastructure? To begin with, our government doesn't have enough money for it. Too many taxpayers cheat on their taxes, and too many people in government keep for themselves whatever taxpayers decide to shell out.
This one we can all blame on ourselves, and we all need to make fundamental changes in ourselves to get out of it.
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 have to face every 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 want to make money out of every construction project.
It's bad enough that we don't have enough infrastructure. We also cannot get the most out of what little we have because they are not well integrated and coordinated.
In the 1990s, we began putting together the blueprint of a seamless multi-modal transport system for the country, so that one can easily move from, say, rail transport to air or water transport by ensuring that the various modes of transport connect to one another.
It's a shame that not even our existing mass rail transit lines in Metro Manila connect to one another seamlessly. And it still makes many people wonder why we cannot build another several hundred meters of railway that could have connected our airports to the LRT line. Unfortunately, the integrated multi-modal system we envisaged then apparently remains largely a blueprint to this day.
The third problem is that our infrastructure is 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 90s to devote a growing share of the infrastructure budget to Mindanao, which resulted in a more than doubling of the share between the start and end of 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 criteria that our planners painstakingly develop and attempt, unsuccessfully, to apply.
Private sector participation
So what's our way out of this predicament? Paying our taxes faithfully is a good place to start. Many of those who benefit most from our various forms of infrastructure are probably among the biggest evaders of taxes as well.
Until we are able to dramatically improve on our tax compliance and collection, our next best bet is to continue tapping private sector resources to provide much of our needed infrastructure via the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) scheme and its variants.
But we also need to recognize that the cost of infrastructure has to be recovered from direct users (i.e. through the proper tolls and fees), if we cannot get it from the general taxpayers.
And yet some of the biggest complainers on highway tolls are those who have been getting much more than their money's worth from these facilities.
Good infrastructure comes at a cost. Yet another illustration that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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