Monday, July 13, 2009

Thinking ahead

A good leader, it is said, is one who thinks at least 25 years ahead of his time, and makes plans accordingly. Sadly in this benighted land, our leaders only think of today. Worse, not only are they unable to solve today’s problems, they compound the same, so that the next leader inherits not a legacy of “stones for the edifice”, but rubble.

The thought came to mind when I read a recent pronouncement from the Department of Public Works and Highways about the proposed construction of an underground highway system on Roxas Boulevard to create more thoroughfare space without destroying the historical landmarks in the area. On the surface, the idea sounds laudable. For once, a government infrastructure agency thinks of preserving historical landmarks and take aesthetic considerations in the planning of their projects. The idea of constructing a tunnel beneath Roxas was conceptualized long before, precisely because a fly-over above it would mar view of Manila Bay and its fabulous sunset, as well as desecrate the Burnham-designed Luneta upon which now stands Rizal Park.

According to DPWH, traffic flow on Roxas Boulevard has crawled to 10 kilometers per hour during the rush hours, and it is anticipated that more vehicles would be passing through in the next few years, particularly when the Coastal Road to Kawit, thence Cavite City, is completed. DPWH Secretary, also the Acting DILG Secretary, said that the proposal would probably take another five years before construction begins. Which is just as well, because hopefully and despite his Dona Gloria, we will have a new leader by then, a leader who can think beyond his term of office, and plan for the sake of future generations.

The DPWH proposal, dubbed the Metro Manila Tunnel Expressway (MMTEX) is composed of an arterial road and an integrated expressway system, to provide motorists and trucks swifter access to the harbors and ports of Manila, and would have two phases: Phase One being an 8-km. tunnel to be built from the NAIA Road to the corner of Roxas and Padre Burgos, which will cost 9.9 billion pesos; and Phase Two would be a more ambitious 20-km. tunnel from Padre Burgos to the NLEX, passing through Navotas, Malabon and Valenzuela. That should cost 30 billion pesos more.

My taking issue with this proposal is not about pesos and centavos, but about the lack of a more comprehensive and long-term plan for the metropolis and its residents. This lack of forward planning, of looking ahead beyond one’s time, is precisely why the quality of life in the National Capital Region has degenerated through the years. Traffic, air pollution, noise pollution, the lack of sewerage facilities. congestion in habitable areas, the coddling of informal settlers, the lack of rapid transport systems, inadequate and ugly street lighting systems, the lack of open parks, playgrounds and other open spaces, even depletion of water sources --- all of these and more, have made Metro Manila one of the world’s ugliest capitals.
Take the DPWH proposed MMTEX. It seeks to alleviate congestion along Roxas Boulevard which connects the single-runway NAIA to the Ports of Manila, namely South, North, MICT (the container port) and the Harbor Place reclamation project now used for break-bulk cargo. The containers and trucks that come from these ports likewise create a nightmare in Metro Manila’s thoroughfares, even if their passage has been delimited by truck bans. These containers are allowed to park in yards within Manila itself, apart from their moving cargo to warehouses also in the NCR area.

Serious long-term planning, which should have been done a long time ago, would have shifted the international sea cargo vessels to ports outside the NCR, such as in Subic in Zambales and Batangas. Even beyond the same, a port in our eastern seaboard, say Infanta, would not only cater to vessels coming from the Pacific, such as the US and Canada, besides opening up thousands of hectares of currently under-utilized lands between Antipolo and Infanta to industrial opportunity. The ports of Manila should be used only for domestic passenger traffic, with modern terminals for passenger convenience. And the Port Area, controlled by the Philippine Ports Authority though owned by the City of Manila, could be an ideal tourist haven, with hotels, restaurants and shoppes neatlt designed from the ashes of its present go-downs and decrepitude. This would also encourage domestic tourism. Luxury cruise liners may also be allowed in the port of Manila, so that along with our island destinations, Manila and its historic Intramuros may be visited by tourists.

Relocating international cargo, whether break-bulk or containerized to Subic, Batangas and even Infanta will also decongest Metro Manila of factories and warehouses, increase the land values in the Calabarzon and Bataan-Zambales areas, as well as spread the population in the metropolis to other provinces.

Instead of looking ahead, our DPWH would simply allocate more taxpayer resources into servicing the improperly located ports of Manila, forever condemning our streets to the presence of giant container behemoths which take up so much space, pound the concrete and asphalt with their mega-weight, and slow down traffic to a perennial crawl. What myopia!

Beyond relocating our ports for ocean-going vessels to other parts of Luzon, serious plans should now be undertaken to relocate the seat of government from Manila to elsewhere. As relocating to the Visayas or Mindanao may be extremely inconvenient for hundreds of thousands of civilian state employees who have their homes at or near the metropolis, maybe another site in Luzon should by now be studied.

Some time in the early Erap days, Public Estates Authority chairman Frisco San Juan, a pre-martial law congressman of the undivided Rizal, now the eminent president of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), had a proposal to utilize Mount Irid for this purpose. Irid is near the Sierra Madre, in the boundaries of Rizal and Quezon, accessible also to Bulacan, if the proper infrastructure would be created. Its elevation is ideal, cool enough even during the hot summer months. But the infrastructure cost would be daunting, far as it is from both seaport and airport. Ideally though, the lowlands and hills surrounding Mt. Irid would make for ideal government housing projects.

There is another possible location which the next government after Gloria may wish to study, and these are the highlands close to Mt. Cuadrado in Pampanga, near Floridablanca, most of which form part of the former Clark Air Base. Nearly all of this is government land. The infrastructure components are mostly in place --- the international airport, and very recently, the SCTEX, that marvellous piece of engineering planned by the FVR administration, financed by the Japanese government through the ministrations of then President Joseph Estrada, and constructed during the reign of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. In a recent conversation with former President Ramos, he estimated some 10,000 hectares available in that plateau, which is almost equidistant from the Subic seaport to the international double-runway airport now re-named after Diosdado Macapagal. The Philippine Air Force headquarters can relocate to Clark, beside the international airport, much like Dulles in Virginia, an hour away from the White House by land. The Army has so much land within Clark at its disposal. The Navy, which is well into relocating its substandard facilities to Sangley, can always have a presence in Subic. And we could have a beautifully designed national capital, replete with parks and rotundas, and uniformly-designed and coordinated buildings, which could rise little by little, but strictly according to plan, something the great Manuel Luis Quezon dreamt in what is now Quezon City, since gone madly awry with the entire NCR.

But that would remove government presence in the capital region, some might say. So what? How many have to transact business physically with government anyway? The ordinary man on the street transacts mostly with local government --- for his permits and licenses, his real estate tax payments, and hardly with the national government, except perhaps with the LTO whose presence all over the land is ubiquitous anyway. And in the age of computers, who cares if the national government capital is a hundred kilometres away from Manila and Makati, Ortigas Centre and Quezon City, which could then redefine itself as a viable financial, commercial, tourism and educational centre (although I still have visions of a beautiful highland university city elsewhere), devoid of sizable traffic and clutter brought about by national government presence? Government buildings, except for Malacanang, the three buildings at the Luneta which altogether comprise the National Museum, could be sold to the private sector, and/or adapted for university use.

What about the cost? Precisely, there is time to do a full cost-benefit analysis, complete with environmental impact studies, and the more important consideration of economic pump-priming. But not in this government, which is riding into the sunset, albeit reluctantly. And even assuming it is able to force itself through by the concupiscence of its soldiers and police, which is altogether doubtful too, that would certainly be a short-lived misadventure.

As we look forward to change, it is best we also dream.