The road-widening and construction activity being undertaken by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) in parts of southern Palawan deserves careful attention and scrutiny. It is, after all, part of a grand plan to transform our existing 4-lane highway into a 6-lane “superhighway”.
The push behind the project emanated from the provincial government and apparently approved by the national government. It is envisioned to usher growth by connecting the province into the mainland and its commerce, and even beyond – the evolving markets of the BIMP region (Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines).
Records of deliberations in the provincial legislature, news interviews with Capitol officials and DPWH personnel as well as the environment officials yield little information about the technical or engineering aspects of this project. What we have come to know so far is just the ball park or the big picture; it will have an expanse of 600 kilometers traversing El Nido to Bataraza, and an expense estimate of P30 billion.
Its implementation began in Narra a few months ago. DPWH has explained that they will undertake the project depending on how far a P3 billion budget downloaded into the department for the current year will go. Next year will be another matter, and so forth. The agency is undertaking the task on a piecemeal basis that depends on the fund availability coming from the annual general appropriations.
As the cliche goes, the devil is in the details. Lack of proper planning and consultation has caused the project to run into problems. In Narra, the municipal government has balked at the destruction of trees that they have planted along the roadsides in the past. Ideally, those trees should be earth-balled and replanted elsewhere but that will entail additional cost to the project. Apparently this was not included in the plan and in its budget.
The obvious reason for this hitch is because there was no proper planning and consultation. According to the Palawan NGO Network (PNNI) and the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), there is not even an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) for the project, a violation of the law. It is just because no one is complaining that this matter is swept under the rug.
The problem that the superhighway project has ran into in Narra is bound to be magnified once it reaches other sensitive areas of the province. Already, there was an online petition launched this week to save the Acacia Lane in Barangay Inagawan in Puerto Princesa City which will have to be sacrificed as collateral damage based on the general concept of this project. This will run into the problem with the city government’s tourism plan to promote the Acacia lane as an attraction.
The NGOs have perhaps raised the more important questions – do we need it and is it worth the risk? Other provinces, they argued, are more economically developed than Palawan and they only had an efficient highway, not a superhighway. Atty. Robert Chan of PNNI is less forgiving, branding the project as nothing more than a milking cow for corruption.
Back in the early 1990s when the 4-lane north road was constructed by a Korean group, it took the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which funded the project years to complete a feasibility study and engineering design. It turned out well and the road today is the reason El Nido boomed into a major tourist destination.
The north road is an efficient and decent four lane highway. It has cut travel time to El Nido and opened the markets to the north. It is a smooth ride unlike any of the DPWH roads we have ever seen anywhere in the planet. One wonders how this road will look like after DPWH contractors are done with their gig.
The problems that have cropped up in the outset of this project and the issues that are being raised by the civil society sector need to be tackled in a constructive dialogue. The ideal venue for this is the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, if only our legislators are able to approach the issue in a more independent manner.