Dec 7, 2018

The so-called “Stairway to Heaven,” that ridiculously-constructed, user-unfriendly, towering overpass looming over the Kamuning stretch of the MRT in Quezon City, is not even the worst of it.

Filipinos have long been jaded when it comes to defective government infrastructure. The most recent was the newly-completed concrete intersection of Banawe and Amoranto Sts. in Quezon City that swallowed the rear end of a 22-wheeler truck filled with sand.

stairway to heaven
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Manila Development Authority

We’ve heard of curing periods when it comes to waiting for cement to dry, so we assume the Cavite-bound truck was allowed by government engineers to pass there because the cement WAS dry.

How about the numerous incidents of speeding buses driving over pedestrians because of the dire lack of street lights? If not busted traffic lights? Of numerous blind spots without safety warnings or newly-laid asphalt that erodes after a drizzle?

What about months-old excavations left in the middle of the road that either trap unsuspecting vehicles or serve as dengue-Grand Centrals when filled with rainwater?

But let’s focus on poorly-designed bridges at the moment.

The Metro Manila Development Authority reportedly spent P10 million for “Stairway to Heaven.” The overpass was imperative, the agency said, because the Kamuning-Edsa area is “accident-prone.” But why design a metal overpass inaccessible to PWDs and senior citizens who most need the safety that such a bridge would provide?

stairway to heaven
Photo courtesy of Mhico Pilar II on Facebook

Then there’s the Estrella-Pantaleon a.k.a. Rockwell bridge that connects Makati and Mandaluyong near the upscale commercial area. The MMDA already closed it for two days last September but decided to reopen it after someone realized those who are supposed to repair it were not ready.

Two things: It was reported later that “Chinese-looking” workers were assigned to conduct the repair. Then the news that the closure was “part of a P5.27 billion grant allowing China to conduct the survey, design, and construction of two bridges along Pasig River.”

One of these planned bridges is now causing a disturbance among culture and history enthusiasts.

Modern bridge could destroy ancient church

We assume Public Works Secretary Mark Villar had good intentions when he announced the plan to build one that would connect San Fernando St. in Binondo district to Solano St. in Intramuros across the water. We consider the easing of traffic a huge favor that would benefit all.

Trouble is, the location of the Intramuros end of the bridge would violate the buffer zone around San Agustin Church. Current laws require the buffer zone for the church to retain inclusion in the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List.

binondo-intarmuros bridge stairway to heaven
Photo courtesy of Philippine Information Agency

The buffer zone needs to be preserved to ensure that San Agustin Church is kept safe from the physical dangers of urban development around it and help preserve its architectural beauty.

Culture enthusiasts further warn that should San Agustin Church be dropped from UNESCO’s list, three other ancient Baroque-style churches—namesake San Agustin Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte, Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion in Sta. Maria, Ilocos Sur, and Sto. Tomas de Villanueva in Miag-ao, Iloilo would also be deleted.

stairway to heaven
San Agustin Church in Intramuros. Photo courtesy of Inquirer.net

This is because the four churches were declared as heritage sites as a group. Delete one and the three others are taken out as well.

The controversy raises several questions:

Who approved the bridge design?

Was the party who approved it aware of zoning laws surrounding the church?

If the proposed Binondo-Intramuros bridge would be funded by a Chinese loan, what happens when the plan is scrapped? Is the construction of the bridge a condition for something else?

We raise these questions because this is an issue that links an apparently problematic government project and a potentially huge external loan. Needless to say, we as taxpayers would ultimately bear the responsibility of paying for this.

Our taxes fund failed projects

Filipinos are so used to lemons among public works projects. Netizens take photos of “Stairway to Heaven,” post them, collect likes, everyone has a good laugh, everyone shrugs their shoulders and move on.

But after finding the photos amusing, we must consider the deeper implications of failed projects as well as those we believe are bound to fail.

In most cases, defective government projects are solid indicators of corruption. The poor design was most likely approved because a contractor was willing to pay off a government engineer who was willing to receive a bribe.

We raise these questions because this is an issue that links an apparently problematic government project and a potentially huge external loan. Needless to say, we as taxpayers would ultimately bear the responsibility of paying for this.

Substandard materials reflected in soon-crumbling cement or asphalt means a contractor had to cut corners to deliver a project.

Most likely, the budget for the project was reduced so the contractor can use some of it to please a government official whose signature the contractor needs for the release of the budgetary allocation for the said project.

Or, that bridge or road now causing inconvenience was constructed in haste so the contractor can hire few workers toiling for a lesser amount of time. Again, because the contractor has to use part of the budget to pay off somebody to allow the project to begin at all.

There are many reasons why public works projects nationwide do not deliver. The theoretical examples mentioned are just a few attempts to explain why. So we end up spending taxpayer money for infrastructure that is hardly used or put up with a lot of collusion and kickbacks.

We have a Commission on Audit (COA) that monitors government spending on such projects. Lately, however, it is chastised rather than lauded by Malacañang for red-flagging questionable projects.

(Remember the P60 million contract that erstwhile Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo awarded to her brother Ben? The COA representatives were grilled well-done in the Senate over that while the siblings have yet to return the cash.)

Huge loans from China

A new danger looms over the planned Binondo-Intramuros bridge and other infrastructure projects in the works that would be funded by loans from China.

We have a President who openly declared his support for China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” a grand highway of infrastructure projects cutting across Asia, by announcing his “Build, Build, Build” program to be funded by the superpower.

The projects will include railways, dams, and irrigation networks. Also bridges like the one that would span the Pasig River and “rehabilitation facilities.” And despite the ongoing controversy over the Binondo-Intramuros project, the National Economic Development Authority announced, “China can be tapped to finance the construction of 10 more bridges crossing the Pasig with grants called Official Development Assistance.”

But not all projects will be funded by grants. Most of the projects under the “Build, Build, Build” program—an estimated 75 “game-changing flagship projects” composed of “hard and modern infrastructure”—are loans that will be paid back eventually to the tune of P9 trillion.

Filipinos are so used to lemons among public works projects. Netizens take photos of “Stairway to Heaven,” post them, collect likes, everyone has a good laugh, everyone shrugs their shoulders and move on.

Malacañang intends to complete the projects by 2022, a phenomenon it insists will usher in a “Golden Age of Infrastructure” in the Philippines.

The plan should concern us all. Not only are we going to pay for it. Like other loans, we deserve to know what we are paying for. We also deserve to pay ONLY for infrastructure loans we stand to gain from.

“Stairway to Heaven” and other failed infrastructure projects should remind us to be vigilant and critical. A reminder to demand transparency.

Oppositors of the Binondo-Intramuros bridge project are right in objecting to a project that threatens a cultural treasure. But what is at stake in the future is not just precious artifacts. We’re talking about a stairway of loans beyond heaven.

 

Featured image courtesy of Jam Sta. Rosa for Inquirer.net

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TAGS: 2018 tax stairway to heaven taxpayer