MORE roads are cutting through the interiors of Mindanao to increase accessibility and movement of people and transport of crops. This is especially crucial for the rural poor to improve their lot and for the urban areas to keep food supply coming during lockdowns forced by the Covid-19 pandemic.

For at least the two regions of Davao and the Cotabato areas, or the Soccsksargen, billions worth of new interprovincial roads are cutting through erstwhile impenetrable terrain and pathways used only as trails for horses and motorcycle transport called habal-habal.

Coastal Road in Davao City.

They are now a few kilometers or a lengthwise of pavement more to completion, in time for the end of the administration of President Duterte, or to be inaugurated in the first year of the replacing administration.

These are only the major road projects that the regional offices of the Department of Public Works and Highways described as “high impact” infrastructure in Region 11, covering the five Davao provinces and their six cities; and Region 12, covering South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos City, referred collectively as the Soccsksargen. The latter is a region that has the textbook reference as the country’s rice bowl, second only to the main rice-producing region of Central Luzon.

There are still multifold more secondary and tertiary roads providing access and connecting roads to these major road projects.

In their report to a webinar with the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) and a major cement manufacturer, government leaders and infrastructure planners expressed hope that the budget for infrastructure, but especially for Mindanao as a whole, would not be slashed to the barest minimum but would be kept to bring the desired growth target of agricultural Mindanao.

MinDa Deputy Executive Director Romeo Montenegro: “We hope to see a better share for Mindanao, where many of the areas really need critical support in
internal allocation, so that we can realize our growth projections and contribute to national growth and development.”

Rice bowl

FOUR “high impact” road projects started in 2015 and 2016 in the Soccsksargen region are currently hovering at 80-percent completion, promising a boon to people mobility and agriculture marketing.

The Banga-Tupi-Malungon Road, the Isulan-Bagumbayan-Sen. Ninoy Aquino-Lebak-Kalamansig Road, the Puntian-Arakan Road and the Surallah-T’boli-San Jose Road are all making a deep lineal mark in the aerial topography of this interior south-central region of Mindanao. They run several hundred kilometers parallel to, or making their own way away from, the main arterial highways to connect production areas in the mountains and deep valleys to the markets in the provincial capitals or the cities of General Santos and Koronadal of South Cotabato, and Kidapawan in North Cotabato.

One of these roads, the Isulan-Bagumbayan-Sen. Ninoy Aquino-Lebak-Kalamansig Road, now directly connects the interior rice-producing municipalities of Cotabato and the erstwhile seldom-traversed fringes of Sultan Kudarat to General Santos City, where the Makar Wharf and the airport are located.

Before, farmers and motorists had to pass by Cotabato City located in Maguindanao province to get to General Santos City, the central area for trade and commerce in the region.

This road project covers 135.146 kilometers and current construction, 80.83 percent under way, had already cost P3.719 billion. Total project cost to end by June 2023 was pegged at P4.726 billion.

Another project, the Puntian-Arakan Road, would connect the northern areas of Soccsksargen to Bukidnon and en route to the main northern Mindanao center of Cagayan de Oro City in Misamis Oriental. This road is only 23.6 kilometers to extend the road in mountainous Arakan Valley of North Cotabato to the Bukidnon town of Kibawe, and two bridges have to be built to bypass deep gorges. This is 86.71 percent under way as of last month and is to cost a total of P830 million.

The four major road projects in this region would open 312.354 kilometers of new paved path to their nearest markets. Government would spend P12.37 billion for these four projects. These exclude yet the secondary and tertiary roads being simultaneously constructed as access to these major infrastructure, or separately pursued to link the municipalities to the cities in the region.

Bypass roads

IN the Davao Region, secondary road projects covered 869 kilometers and tertiary roads opened 369.49 kilometers, many of which provide access to the big-ticket projects being undertaken in the region.

Primary road projects, including the big highway projects, covered 469.75 kilometers.

The flyover in Tagum City, stretching 1.625 kilometers along its main highway, is one of the big-ticket projects and a major game-changer for transport in the area of Davao del Norte, Davao de Oro (formerly Compostela Valley) and Davao Oriental. This flyover will be opened next month to clear traffic for the highway that is the converging point for the Daang Maharlika Highway, or the Davao-Agusan Highway, and the Davao-Surigao Highway.

A third major highway that also converges to this Tagum highway is the Davao-Mati Road.

Davao del Sur has its own project also, the Matanao-Padala-Kiblawan, stretching for 58.55 kilometers, and a bridge spanning 150 meters. “This would further ease transport of palay and corn and access to the production of export Cavendish banana, copra and custard beans,” the Davao DPWH said. An access road is being constructed in the province to reach the Lao Integrated Farms, Mount Apo trails and the Balutakay waterfalls. It starts from Sitio Marber at the intersection of the Davao-Cotabato Road and ends in Sitio Balutakay, Managa, which connects to the Bansalan National Park Road.

A sight to see, however, is the Davao Coastal Bypass Road, the early photographs of which show a sports oval-like pavement for joggers and a bicycle lane alongside a four-lane road. It covers 17.35 kilometers weaving its way through the coast and skipping through the communities of informal settlers and former beaches, with 17 bridges, including an almost kilometer-long span across the Davao River delta and on to Agdao area ending on R. Castillo Street.

There is also the Samal Circumferential Road in the Island Garden City of Samal, providing access to its white-sand beaches, a marine sanctuary and bat caves; the extension of the Carlos P. Garcia Diversion Road; the abutment and riprapping of the Tagum-Liboganon River to reduce the perennial flooding of low-lying communities and the widening of the highway in Barangay Matti and Aurora in Digos City, Davao del Sur.

Many of these are to be finished between the end of the year and the first semester of next year.

During the last five years, the Davao DPWH office undertook 6,399 projects with a combined cost of P245.7 billion, many of them widening the highways from two and four lanes to the current six lanes, including the mountain passes in Mawab, Davao del Norte, the Davao City and Bukidnon border and in Malungon, South Cotabato.

Covid-19 effect on budget

ASSISTANT Secretary Romeo Montenegro, the deputy executive director of MinDA, however, said a dark cloud hangs over the allocation for Mindanao’s infrastructure budget share, which, for one, has been slashed sharply, alongside all the budgets across sectors and items.

This year, Mindanao was allocated P225 billion, which is 32.4 percent of the DPWH budget. But in the proposed budget for 2022, it would get only P44 billion, a plunge in share to 6.4 percent, as the department also sees a reduced budget, from P695.7 billion this year to P686.1 billion in the proposed budget.

Other sectors are looking at reduced shares for Mindanao next year, with health having a proposed budget share of P14.2 billion, slightly down from P15.1 billion this year, and agriculture, at P7.1 billion next year, down from P9.4 billion this year. Education fares better, with P136.2 billion share next year, up from P124.1 this year, and social welfare, at P44.1 billion, up from P41 billion this year.

In the comparative general appropriations, Mindanao was still getting 11.6 percent and 11.7 percent share in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 and in 2020 when the appropriation was done before the onset of the pandemic. In 2021 it shot up to a 17-percent share, but in the proposed budget next year, it would be cut by 13.1 percent.

Montenegro said Mindanao leaders will still revisit the disaggregation of the data to see if there are programs and projects for Mindanao that are embedded in national programs but which were not reflected as Mindanao allocations. If there are items like these, this would add up to the figures.

“We are striving for the desired level of at least 34 percent that was arrived at in a session of Mindanao leaders and lawmakers several years ago, although we understand…the difficulty we are facing with the pandemic,” he told a webinar on Wednesday.

He said Mindanao was making a strong point even during the pandemic as it continues to churn out growth in crop production, and in the pre-pandemic years showing growth patterns as high as 7.3 percent in the gross domestic regional product higher than the national average.

“We hope to see a better share for Mindanao, where many of the areas really need critical support in internal allocation, so that we can realize our growth projections and contribute to national growth and development,” he added.

Image courtesy of Manuel T. Cayon

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