Infrastructure News Analysis

Dream scheme to tackle a nightmare

The biggest and most ambitious infrastructure project ever devised for the Philippines, the Metro Manila Dream Plan – a US$58 billion integrated scheme to tackle the capital’s troubled hybrid transport and roads systems – is approaching the end of its first phase, 2014-2016. Now the baton has been handed to the newly appointed heads of three key government departments to push the colossal scheme forward on the next leg of its journey to the finish line in 2030.

Originally called the “Roadmap for Transport Infrastructure Development for Metro Manila and Its Surrounding Areas,” the Dream Plan is a collection of short- and medium-term projects, based on a study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and approved by the National Economic Development Agency two years ago.

Its purpose is to integrate Manila’s conflicted, nightmarish transport infrastructure, tackle the world’s worst congestion, address the lack of affordable housing and make slum and squatter areas a thing of the past, and ensure urban settlements are not exposed to environmental risks such as flooding, landslides and typhoons.

Its priority goals are what have become known as “The Five Nos” – no traffic congestion, no air pollution, no barriers to seamless mobility, no excessive cost burden for low-income groups, and no households living in hazardous conditions.

Traffic management is another integral part of the dream scheme and emphasis has been put on an upgrading of traffic engineering, traffic enforcement and traffic education. In short, engendering much needed driver and pedestrian discipline. ITS, or intelligent transport services – such as computerised mobile navigation systems, multi-storey parking, and park-and-ride spaces at rail stations – have also been built into the blueprint.

Much of the responsibility for the plan’s implementation falls on the shoulders of the Departments of Transport, and Public Works and Highways, and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.

The scope of the Dream Plan involves building 641 kilometres of high-standard roads with intelligent transport systems, a 91 km north-south commuter rail system, a 75 km Mega Manila subway, a new airport at Sangley, new seaports to ease the overburdened Port of Manila, and five new towns that will accommodate 1.2 million households. The airport project is expected to spawn further infrastructural commissions for logistics centres, industrial zones, further road networks and bridge construction.

Naturally while all this is going on, the Dream Plan for most Manila commuters is the Nightmare Plan as congestion becomes further exacerbated by seemingly endless road works that can add considerable time lags to their journeys throughout each succeeding phase of the various road projects. And while thoughts of another 14 years of that is almost incomprehensible, much of the road construction work falls within the earlier phases, though time over-runs are a common element of highway projects in the Philippines.

It’s certainly a bold plan but few doubt it will not be without its setbacks. And probably the biggest of these will be financing. The US$58 billion is based on JICA’s original layout and already there have been new cost estimates that the bill could run to more than US$65 billion. Further adjustments, over time, will have to be made to accommodate new, possibly unforeseen problems, acts of God such as flooding and new infrastructure damage from super typhoons, the toll of additional vehicles on Manila’s roads which have been estimated but are not known.

It’s a big invoice, but in terms of JICA’s assessment that Manila’s paralysing traffic has a per-diem cost to the Philippine economy of US$64 million, ever a bill of US$65 billion, would pay for itself in 2 years, 9 months, 1 week and five days. Traffic – the killer of Manila

Put like that it seems a small price to pay.