By John Ezekiel J. Hirro

The government needs to fast-track policy reforms to achieve “resilient and sustainable” infrastructure growth through the “Build, Build, Build” (BBB) program amid the Covid-19 pandemic, a congressional think tank said.

In a policy brief, the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department said that because of the health crisis, the BBB has been beset with problems that had resulted in delays in project completion, such as disruption of construction activities, as well as trade-offs with more urgent Covid-19 response measures, lack of technology, right-of-way acquisition problems, poor project preparation and identification, and procurement problems.

The committee said reforms that would ensure a “conducive environment” for both public and private investments in the infrastructure sector were needed. These include the enactment of the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Act, the National Transport Policy, amendments to the Right-of-Way (ROW) Law and the Sustainable Transportation Act.

It said that amendments to the Build-Operate-Transfer Law should include provisions for PPP modalities and free the government from provisions that hamper its regulatory authority, such as automatic rate increases, non-compete clauses, commitments of non-interference, temporary restraining orders and concessionaire-required government guarantees.

A national transport plan that harmonizes development goals of national and local governments is also needed, the think tank said.

“Developing a comprehensive long-term national transport policy is essential in achieving a well-coordinated and seamless multi-modal transport system (i.e. port, airports, roads and rail) insulated from political intervention and supportive of trade and commerce as well as the country’s overall competitiveness,” the policy brief stated.

Right-of-way issues

The think tank said ROW-related issues have continued to set back timely implementation of infrastructure projects.

To solve these, amendments as regards “major issues” such as compensation for informal settlers, indigenous peoples and private utilities and the procurement of an independent private appraiser accredited by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas are necessary, it said.

It also said valuation issues must be resolved at the negotiation stage to minimize disputes between property owners and prevent ROW cases in the courts.

Specific provisions need to be articulated so the implementation of the law would not be subjected to different interpretations.

No internet connectivity projects

The Covid-19 pandemic should be an opportunity for the government to advance sustainable transport infrastructure and decarbonization agenda by focusing on low-carbon solutions such as widening sidewalks, pedestrianized streets, dedicated bike lanes, electric scooter pathways and the like, the think tank said.

The think tank pointed out that there were no information and communications technology (ICT) projects under the BBB program to address the huge internet connectivity problem in the country.

“It is urgent time that the government revisits our obsolete and analog-based ICT policies and update these regulations consistent with the requirements in a digital world,” it said.

“Hence, the passage of critical ICT reforms namely the Open Access and Data Transmission Law, the Spectrum Management Act, Amendments to the Public Telecommunications Policy Act, the Public Services Act and the E-Government Act should be prioritized to help promote stronger e-commerce and digital transformation,” it added.