Though Philippine President Benigno Aquino III was only sworn in on July 1, concerns are already voiced in some quarters over the potential impact of administration’s planned austerity measures on the transport sector.
These measures will likely rule out the kind of big-ticket transport infrastructure projects cited by supporters of the outgoing president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, as some of her administration’s major achievements.
Showcase projects included the Strong Republic Nautical Highway, an integrated network of ports that links towns and communities on many islands by road and roll-on roll-off ferries. The Ports Authority also spent more than $345m on its cargo and passenger handling facilities during Arroyo’s tenure, while one of her last acts as president was the inauguration of a project at Ubay Port on Bohol Island in the southern Philippines.
With transport being such a high-profile portfolio under his predecessor, Aquino had to pay close attention to his choice for the position. Saying he wanted to avoid the corruption allegations that have tainted past transport projects, Aquino pledged in June to appoint candidates who would combat entrenched interests at the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
“There are candidates at the DOTC, DPWH,” he said. “However, I would like a combination of a visionary and technocrat, and young and old people in this government because you are after idealism.”
Local media had speculated that Aquino would offer the transport secretary post to Jejomar Binay, the winner of the vice-presidential race ahead of Aquino’s running mate, Senator Manuel Roxas II. However, Aquino’s officials quickly played down reports that were likely fueled by the vice-president’s camp.
It was Jose de Jesus, public works secretary during the presidency of Cory Aquino – the new president’s late mother – who was instead given the position. Rogelio Singson, CEO of the utilities firm Maynilad Water Services, was named as DPWH secretary.
Confirming De Jesus as transport secretary, Aquino described him as one of the hardest working members in his mother’s cabinet, “a work-driven individual who will oversee the transformation of the DOTC”.
Soon after being sworn in, De Jesus said that while modernisation of transport facilities was a priority, he would take time to assess the department’s situation and the state of on-going projects.
“During the first month, I need to know what’s going on. What’s in line? Who are the people behind this agency? I want to know everything going on at the DOTC so after that I can begin working on a road map,” he told the Business Mirror on June 30.
The size and scope of De Jesus’ road map will likely be limited by a wide-reaching review of all state expenditure and existing projects that Aquino has ordered
Florencio Abad, budget secretary, told media in June that the new administration plans to narrow the $6.4bn budget deficit projected by Arroyo’s financial experts, as part of a wider review of the former government’s fiscal goals and economic targets. He added that despite a freeze on spending for most portfolios, education and health would receive additional funding.
Though the impact of the government’s austerity measures is as yet unclear, the Arroyo administration’s track record of large infrastructure projects means that both the public and the opposition will likely keep a close eye on their significance for the transport sector.