Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

“The only legacy of my favorite President (Cory Aquino) about which I have serious doubts are the flyovers, eyesores that cater only to car owners and do not solve the gargantuan traffic problems of a 21st century metropolis.” – John Vissers, Dutch News Correspondent, 1992

“Before the construction of the flyovers, one of the more stinging criticisms against the Aquino Administration was that it did not have any accomplishments to show” – Jessica Soho, 1992.

Every administration wants to leave a concrete legacy. A literal concrete legacy. Marcos’ edifice complex is well-known. Aquino’s flyovers were built to show some accomplishments. Ramos initiated the construction of MRT and Skyway. Erap has mansions for her mistresses. Arroyo seems to be the most accomplished with her extensive network of roads, bridges, RoRo, new LRT lines, SCTEX, NLEX, and SLEX. Ten flyover projects will be finished before the end of Arroyo’s term.

Every politician is proposing a road project. DPWH expenses are dominated by national roads and congressional allocations. Since Metro Manila roads are already cemented, local politicians have concocted something else: beautification of street sidewalks. But some politicians and bureaucrats are unable to correct some old habits. They destroy good roads so that they can have a legitimate reason to propose the asphalting of these roads. Clever!

It is puzzling that abortion roads (or rough roads) still dot the Philippine countryside even if most politicians, national and local, boast of sponsoring various road projects. It is surprising that Arroyo has listed infrastructure development as her positive legacy. A closer look at the country’s infrastructure competitiveness numbers point to the underwhelming performance of the Arroyo administration in terms of improving the country’s roads.

The Philippines has 29,650 km of total national road network. But only 23 percent or 6,811 km are in good conditions. The rest are decorated with potholes, depressions, ruts, shoving, cracks, and failed sections. There are 812 temporary national bridges. It’s not the number of road projects that counts, but the quality of these construction activities.

The country’s paved roads ratio is at 73 percent. Compare this number with Myanmar’s 80 percent, Kazakhstan’s 93 percent, and Thailand’s 98 percent. The regions with the lowest paved roads ratio are CAR (40 percent), Mimaropa (48 percent), and CARAGA (53 percent). The Philippines ranked 57th in the 2009 Basic Infrastructure Competitiveness Index in Asia. Only 57 countries were surveyed last year.

Road projects are politicized. Malacanang decides which political dynasty will receive preferential treatment when dividing the spoils. Distribution of road funding is not based on urban-rural planning. For example, Rizal and Bulacan provinces received P215 million and P211 million respectively in 2007 from the funds collected through the Motor Vehicles User’s Charge. Meanwhile, Isabela City was allotted only P990 thousand and Marawi was given P2 million.

There are 334 local bills in the 14th Congress proposing the nationalization of hundreds of local roads. Is this good or bad? National roads are maintained by the national government. If roads are nationalized, it means more funds for the local governments but fewer funds for the social and economic projects of the national government.

Politicians want road projects because they are visible and permanent accomplishments. Roads are built to gather more votes on election day. But politicians must also appreciate the economic benefits of improving the country’s road network. Roads handle 90 percent of the country’s passenger-movement and 50 percent freight movement. Because of poor transport infrastructure quality in the country, road accidents cost US$894 million in 2002. This was equal to more than 1 percent of the GDP.

Good roads improve lives and livelihood. Good roads attract more tourists. The construction of the circumferential road in Bohol enhanced the tourism profile of the province. Studies show that a 1 percent increase in road access can bring a 0.11% increase in income of the poor. A 1 percent improvement in the International Roughness Index for national roads would yield a 4 percent reduction in vehicle operating cost.

The country’s poorest provinces have high unpaved roads ratio. Tawi-Tawi, Masbate, Sulu, Lanao del Sur and Ifugao are provinces with high incidences of poverty and poor provincial roads. The presence of rough roads also signifies the existence of rebel groups.

Flyovers and LRT lines are political investments in the urban. They do not just decongest the metropolis, they are built to impress the opposition-leaning urban voters. The RoRo is another effective political infrastructure. It links the islands. It is an appropriate transport network in an archipelagic country like the Philippines. It allows the weak state to dominate the wild spaces and places in the rural. It tames the rough seas. It gives an illusion that the weak state is able to lead by transporting people and products throughout the islands. But the RoRo is treated by some technocrats as a mere economic project. Its political value is not appreciated. Gibo wants mega bridges, mega tunnels to connect the islands. (Mega sources of corruption too). Maybe it is his answer to the recent cases of maritime disasters.

There are paved roads and rough roads. There are local roads and national roads. There are tourism roads, accident-prone roads, corruption roads, insurgency roads, and RoRo roads. There are colonial roads (Kennon) and freedom roads (Mendiola, Edsa). There are political roads and there are economic roads. Building roads has never been an innocent enterprise.

*Thanks to the Congressional Planning and Budget Department of the House of Representatives for the DPWH data cited in this post.

Related articles:

National roads
Corruption in the Philippines
Old highways
Recto-Doroteo Jose

2 Responses to “Road Politics. Road Economics”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by mong palatino, Kabataan Partylist. Kabataan Partylist said: KABATAAN Rep. Mong Palatino's latest blog entry: Road Politics. Road Economics. […]

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  2. […] located at the foot of a small hill in Koronadal Valley. To reach the school, one has to pass an “abortion road”. Siok does not matter to decisionmakers because of its remoteness and small voting population. The […]

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