On road constructions: the Loakan Road project

Here we go again. The situation over at the ongoing construction on Loakan Road is exactly why national and local news and commentaries regularly rile about the inefficiencies of Philippine Government. The situation makes it easy to forget there are government mandates for quality standards such as due diligence in public procurement, compliance monitoring in project management, mitigation of project effects and impacts, and lesson learning as part of project evaluations, as these are not apparent in this project.

1. Due diligence. The contractor is known locally as one who has not completed projects on time. Project completion period is 60 days as stated on the project information board. The period has now lapsed and the construction is not even half done. The question is, surely there are better qualified contractors?

2. Compliance monitoring. With INGOs, contracts covering technical service provision as well as infrastructure projects specify clauses to protect the contracting party in the instance that the contractor defaults on contract terms such as completion period. It may be a deduction of 2% for every day of delay (delays due to fortuituous events are not included). Such provisions are only fair, lesson learned in contracts management the world over. What is DPWH doing about non-compliance in project completion period?

Another aspect in compliance monitoring covers technical standards. What is the industry standard for temporary housing of workers on-site? For the Loakan construction, temporary on-site office/housing for the project is a canvas tent which isn’t even properly secured against the elements (rains have been nonstop for three weeks). Water supply is from a refillable tank, standing like a mini Tower of Pisa beside the tent. What is this? Even hogs are better housed! The sight is depressing and an affront to talent available in the industry (surely, engineers can devise a better frame for the tent or perhaps a better alternative space such as a container van without draining contractor’s pockets? C’mon, this is the 21st century, reverberating with technology and expertise!).

Also, compliance to good governance processes. I refer to what is public knowledge of “standard cuts” handed out to public officers, leaving the project with an actual budget of just 20% of the approved amount. Contractors, understandably, do everything to also set aside some profit for themselves. As a result, everybody gets poor quality infrastructures and service. Public officers got their money, yes, but they cannot with that money buy quality roads even for themselves. Their wives and partners could buy a PHP300,000 LV bag but what is that compared to what they deprived the nation of? What did the Pope recently describe corruption- the gangrene of the people?

3. Mitigation. There are negative externalities resulting from infrastructure projects, affecting community life, the environment, aesthethics of a place. These should be identified especially that the country and this City has a policy for disaster risk reduction, and consequently, measures put in place to reduce these negative effects and impacts.

The project’s effect on community life is that in the past 60 days and more, locals especially have rearranged their lives in order to get through the line of one-lane traffic in time to do whatever they’re scheduled to do. Commuters wait long lines downtown for jeepneys and taxis to show up after hurdling through the project area. A four-kilometer ride that usually takes 5-7 minutes pre-project now takes 15-20 minutes. Yet the cause of these snaking lines are shockingly simple: teenagers are put in charge to manage traffic flow and it appears that instruction they got was to have vehicles on either lane wait 15 minutes at all times. So they do that. But reality on location is vehicle volume on either lane varies in that traffic is heavier on one lane usually toward downtown at certain hours. Yet, traffic is being managed with a different set of assumptions which are, vehicle volume is equally distributed on each lane and that this is constant throughout the day thus the 15 minute wait on each lane. One might argue this is standard time if there were traffic lights installed. Sure, but my point is, traffic lights are programmed on that time. These are not humans with brains. People are not pre-programmed infrastructures. They come with brains therefore capable of intelligent assessment and equipped with flexibility for quick decision and response when the situation calls for it. Thus when one sees that there are no vehicles on one lane while there’s a kilometer of them on the other, would one still impose the 15 minute wait on the lane with the long line of vehicles just because that is the instruction (and may I add from those who are not in the area enough and are therefore cut off from ground reality)? On one hand, can we expect teenagers with inadequate training to know the difference? Do we want our daily travel and subsequently our health to be dictated by this kind of traffic management?

In financial and economic terms, commuters are shouldering all the costs: longer commute which translates to increased metered fare and gas use that in turn means taking away some amount from certain budget items perhaps food to cover increases in the others; shorter sleep time because now one has to get up two hours early which may translate to productivity loss ; etc.

Filipinos put up with stupidity on a daily basis and we name this patience. Recall that this nation’s number one cause of mortality is heart disease.

What is then the plan to mitigate these effects? Development projects are required under the government’s EIA system to submit plans to that effect. A project cannot proceed without one. Surely, DPWH can do better in compelling contractors to comply and not with just any plan but rather with a quality meaning intelligent plan?

The policy in a just society is, the polluter pays.

4. Lessons learned. Lessons must be applied in order for these to qualify as learned. Evaluations of past road projects are replete with lessons in project management that current projects can learn from. To cite a few:

* Timing of fund disbursements. COA seriously need to review it’s disbursement schedule and procedure. Fund releases for infrastructure projects especially roads are timed during the typhoon season. In the context of DRR and CCA, this is the opposite of smart. The agency has received regular feedback on this from Local Government Units as well as the UN and I/NGO sector.

* Piece work (or in local lingo, chop chop) implementation. This is yet another effect of the COA process. The Loakan Road project is being constructed as if a doll without limbs. Arms and legs will be added in the future when funds for limb production and insertion are made available. This is such an incredulously stupid and worthless production line if there ever was one. But surprise! this is what we have here with road projects. Three years ago, it was asphalt. This year, the asphalt’s broken up and lanes are being concreted. In five years, portions of the concrete are opened up and drainage put in. And then somebody has the bright idea to put up a larger than life information board that reads: This is where your taxes go. My goodness. Let’s stop this craziness already.

How? Quoting rugby player Jack Dixon, focus on results and you will never change (but) focus on change and you will get results. Something to mull over.

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