Before I entered government, I was a humanitarian worker who traveled to all 18 regions in the country. I worked with both the United Nations Development Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. On November 8, 2013, Supertyphoon Yolanda first made landfall in the municipality of Guiuan in Eastern Samar. The terrain was difficult. Delivery of goods proved to be challenging. Cadavers lined up on the streets. Trees and debris blocked the roads. The smell of death and decay lasted for months.
At that time, I wished the Philippines had better roads, that it would be easier for anyone who wanted to send help, to reach areas that needed medicines, food, and water. Bulldozers arrived from Cebu, Manila, and Davao via boat because a number of equipment in the region were lost or destroyed.
What was left was not enough to reach far-flung areas that were completely isolated. In several towns, it took weeks before help came. Several years after Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines, international development organizations remained to help in the recovery and rehabilitation process. In my mind, it was difficult to talk about sustainable development when students had to risk their lives just to go to school, when farmers and fishers had to take whatever the middle men were willing to give because transportation of their produce proved too difficult. A number of municipalities could only be accessed through boats.
Whenever it rained, families would have to make a decision whether to risk their lives or lose their income. It was at this point that I realized that if we were to achieve real and inclusive economic growth, then a good infrastructure network was necessary. I would have never thought that in a matter of years I would join President Rodrigo Duterte’s Build, Build, Build team. Five years later, I am more convinced that Build, Build, Build should be institutionalized. For instance, the coastal municipalities of Northern Samar and Eastern Samar that at one point could not go to Catarman without having to pass through the island town of Laoang can now do so via the Samar Pacific Coastal Road Project. This makes a big difference to farmers who at one point had no other way but to transport their produce via small boats.
What is Build, Build, Build?
At one point in its history, the Philippines was the second richest country in Asia. We were only a little behind Japan and way ahead of China. At its peak, our rail transportation spanned 1,100 kilometers. In 2016, we only had about 77 kilometers. The decline of our transportation network was mainly attributed to the government’s chronic underspending on infrastructure, which only averaged 2.4 percent of our country’s GDP for the past half century. This is minimal compared to the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 5, which recorded at least five percent.
To effectively usher in the Golden Age of Infrastructure, the Duterte Administration created Build, Build, Build, a medium-term development strategy, which aimed to mobilize the largest work force in Philippine history to implement an infrastructure plan consistent with the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity. Taking a whole of government approach, an inter-agency committee composed of six national agencies—the Department of Public Works and Highways, the Department of Transportation, the Bases Conversion and Development Authority, the Department of Finance, the Department of Budget and Management, and the National Economic and Development Authority—was formed.
Cost of doing nothing
The cost of indifference to our infrastructure decline is not minimal. For instance, in NCR alone, the Philippines lost P2.4 billion a day in 2012 due to traffic congestion. This has gone up to P3.5 billion after six years, according to a study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Now, road usage in Metro Manila is at about 13.4 million trips per day and could go as high as 16.1 million in 17 years. Economic losses could also rise to P5.4 billion in 2035 in the absence of any infrastructure intervention.
Access to the most inaccessible
The past five years has not been easy but I will always look at it fondly. It is immensely satisfying to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Our critics were correct — it would have been impossible for us to implement Build, Build, Build alone. We knew it from the start. If not for the help of the 6.5 million Filipinos who willingly took part of the shared vision of creating a more comfortable life for all, big ticket projects would remain in the pipeline. In 2016, critics said Build, Build, Build would not be able to deliver, that the plan to connect the northernmost part of Metro Manila to the southernmost part within 30 minutes was exaggerated.
As I write this book, we have already opened Skyway Stage 3 and effectively reduced travel time from NLEX to SLEX to only 30 minutes. By 2022, EDSA will be back to its original capacity of 288,000 vehicles with the completion of BGC Ortigas Link Bridge, Estrella Pantaleon Bridge, NLEX Harbor Link, NLEX Connector, Binondo Intramuros Project, and Laguna Lake Highway, among others. In 2017, critics said Build, Build, Build was biased toward Metro Manila. This is far from reality.
For instance, Northern Mindanao, Davao, Soccksargen, and Caraga saw the realization of the Mindanao Road Development Network, a 2,567-kilometer intermodal logistics network, which aims to address constraints cause by high cost of transport and inadequate logistics infrastructure. In 2018, critics said the Mega Bridge Program had not moved or that it had been shelved.
Now, the main bridge of the Cebu Cordova Link Bridge is almost complete. Moreover, Panguil Bay Bridge is now at 27.568 percent.In 2019, critics said Build, Build, Build was a dismal failure. They did not see the completion of the Boracay Circumferential Road, the Camalig Bypass in Albay, the Tarlac Pangasinan La Union Expressway, the Lingayen Bypass in Pangasinan, the Aganan Bridge in Iloilo, and the Central Luzon Link Expressway as a success that must be celebrated. In 2020, critics said “Hindi nakakain ang imprastraktura.” They failed to remember the Kankanaey, Bago, and Ibaloi groups in Barangay Mapita who will have access to markets and basic social services once the Daang Katutubo is complete.
They forgot to mention the farmers in Isabela who had to take a 74-kilometer detour before the Pigalo bridge was reconstructed. In 2021, critics said “PPP (Public-private partnerships), hindi BBB.” It is not one or the other. All infrastructure projects under the Build, Build, Build program are financed by three implementation modalities: national government financing, PPPs, or official development assistance (ODA). In other words, all PPP projects financed, constructed, and completed from 2016 to 2022 are included in the Build, Build, Build program
Who takes the credit?
Five years later, with the completion of 29,264 kilometers of roads, 5,950 bridges, 11,340 flood control projects, 222 evacuation centers, 150,149 classrooms, 214 airport projects, and 451 seaport projects, the predominant discourse has been ‘Who takes the credit?” The answer is obvious—the 6.5 million workers who worked and are still working to make the vision a reality. But if we are to be honest, the more important question is “How do we institutionalize Build, Build, Build as a policy?”