Incessantly inferior infrastructure

By: Cielito F. Habito - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | April 11,2023 - 08:00 AM

When the government’s premier think tank calls out our infrastructure as inadequate and inferior, our leaders need to sit up and listen. The Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) has done just that on our transport infrastructure, in the latest issue of its Development Research News, which summarizes the latest key research findings by its pool of experts.

PIDS is no ordinary think tank. Consistently among the top-ranked development think tanks worldwide, it is widely respected in the research community for credible, independent, and data-driven policy research. And even as a government think tank, it has always upheld its independence, never hesitating to call out the government’s faults and shortcomings when its evidence-based analyses call for it.

On land transport, researchers Adoracion Navarro and Jokkaz Latigar documented how we continue lagging behind our Southeast Asian neighbors in improving the quantity and quality of road and rail transport infrastructure. The 2019 Global Competitiveness Index rates us poorly in road connectivity and quality, railroad density, and efficiency of train services. While noting some improvement in the quality of national roads, the authors found that more local roads are rated “poor” to “bad” than “good” to “fair.” Many bridges remain temporary (i.e., made of timber and bailey) and need replacement with more permanent concrete and steel. They also noted how our active railways shrank drastically from over a thousand kilometers in the 1970s to only 77 km in 2016. This had increased again to 395 km by 2021, but load factor data reveal severe congestion in rail transit systems in Metro Manila. Harassed daily city rail commuters need not see the data to know that our rail transport system is woefully behind.

Kris Francisco and Valerie Lim observed similarly severe capacity and technical limitations in our air transport sector. Even back in 2016, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport already handled nearly five million passengers beyond its annual capacity of 35 million. Only 22 of our 90 national airports are equipped for night use. Oxford Economics scores us lowest on aviation infrastructure in the region. The authors call for an overhaul of the institutional environment for air transport, citing past recommendations for an integrated system and improved interagency coherence, convergence, and coordination.

Recent maritime accidents highlight our similar troubles in the water transport sector. In another study, Francisco and Lim noted that while there may be enough seaports in the country, most are underdeveloped and underequipped, with most major ports suffering from congestion. The result is imbalanced port utilization, with ports having uneven capacity and capability. Institutional issues also hound the water transport sector, as the authors observe conflicting roles of government agencies and a lack of coordination in port planning. It has long been pointed out, for example, that the Philippine Ports Authority has conflicting roles as developer, operator, and regulator of ports, and yet this basic anomaly remains unaddressed. The authors add that these institutional issues have contributed to the low quality of services and inefficient functioning of public ports. They cite the main challenge as “the absence of institutional anchoring for overall integrated planning for multimodal transport.”

A seamless multimodal transport system has in fact been a declared goal since the 1990s. Yet our mass railway system has yet to be connected to our airport terminals like they are elsewhere—even as it would have been so easy to do, with the LRT-1 line barely a kilometer away. Insiders admit that vested interests in the taxi industry had prevailed over public interest and prevented such connections from happening. As long as our infrastructure planning is not based on the greatest good for the greatest number, little will be gained in closing our infrastructure gap with our neighbors, as we’ve failed to do for decades now.

And we haven’t even touched on power, water, and telecommunications, where our inadequacies are equally, if not more daunting.

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TAGS: infrastructure, maritime, Ninoy Aquino International Airport, roads
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