Saturday, April 18, 2009

Airports, seaports and local government

April 8, 2009

ILOILO CITY – It is Holy Week now, a period of long vacation for many people to visit their folks and relatives in the provinces. Naturally, public transportation – airlines, shipping lines bus lines, passenger boats, jeepneys, etc. – are very busy moving people to hundreds of destinations across the country.

For an archipelagic country like the Philippines with more than 7,000 islands and islets, airports and seaports are very crucial to facilitate the mobility of people and their goods across islands and provinces. Land transportation across islands before was impossible, but with the introduction of roll-on, roll-off (RORO) boats that transport both people and vehicles, this is now possible, although still limited to the major islands in the country.

Between national and local governments, it is the latter which has the greater interest to hasten the construction of more airports and seaports in their islands and provinces, or at least the expansion of existing ones. But interest and power are not the same. It is national government agencies and bureaucracies – Airport Transportation Authority (ATO) and Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) for airports and airlines respectively, and Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) and Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) for seaports and shipping lines respectively – that have the power to allow or disallow, the construction of airports and seaports, of giving permission to airlines and shipping lines.

When I traveled from Manila to Iloilo City early this week, I took the bus, transported by RORO ships between Batangas to Calapan, Mindoro Oriental, and from Roxas, Mindoro to Caticlan, Aklan. This is the route taken by a number of tourists who are going to Boracay. And this is the fourth time I think that I took this route; my previous trip was about four years ago.

Batangas Port is a modern port compared to most seaports in the country. Wide and spacious, the road infrastructure inside is good. And there are plenty of RORO ships that transport people and vehicles from Batangas to Calapan. As long as a ship is filled up, it immediately sails, so there is no long queue of vehicles waiting at the parking area. So the system here is efficient, both in port infrastructure and services and competition by RORO shipping lines.

Roxas Port in Oriental Mindoro is different. It is not big enough for the huge volume of vehicles – buses, trucks, jeeps, cars and vans – that want to be moved across Panay Island. Thus, there is a long queue of vehicles waiting for their turn. Lucky for the buses, they are always prioritized whereas trucks and private cars are accommodated only when there still spaces left. A delivery truck driver I talked to said they arrived 6pm and as of 1am, they do not know when their truck can be accommodated. On some occasions, trucks have to wait for one day, whereas our bus arrived around 12 midnight and within an hour, entered the ship and by 1:45pm, our boat sailed.

Perhaps the port itself may be wide enough, but there are only a few ships from two shipping lines (Montenegro and Starlite) that ply this route. Add the fact that travel time between Roxas and Caticlan is 4 to 4 ½ hours, so it takes the ships longer time to make another trip, resulting in a huge backlog of un-transported vehicles on both Roxas and Caticlan seaports. Passengers meanwhile endure bad service because the ships have limited seats, so many passengers have to stand or sit in the floor. I sat on the floor during the entire 4 hours early morning trip and hence, was not able to sleep well.

There is a need to bring in another shipping line to bring in additional RORO ships and offer more competition and more choice for motorists and passengers. Or at least encourage the existing two players to bring in additional ships. Consequently, there might be a need to expand the port capacity of Roxas and Caticlan to accommodate more ships docking.

Another option is to build another port further south of Mindoro island, which is actually closer to Caticlan, than Roxas. Of course there are other navigational and engineering considerations like depth of a port, some cover from strong winds, etc. Nonetheless, local governments of both places (provinces and municipalities) will benefit more if more ships and vehicles will be using their ports and road network. It will mean more commerce and trade, more tourism and investments, as more people and prospective investors will spot new opportunities in their provinces.

In this season of long Lenten holidays and summer break, the issue of crowded seaports and airports is highlighted as more people and goods move across islands, even across the country. A country with more than 90 million people, the 12th largest in the world, in an archipelagic environment needs dozens of international airports too. For instance, huge islands and/or regional centers like Negros, Panay (Iloilo and Aklan especially), Leyte, Masbate, Camarines Sur-Legaspi, Cagayan, and Cagayan de Oro need their own international airports, even for a few Asian destinations like Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo.

Competition among local governments, among residents and entrepreneurs of various islands and regional centers, and not grand national plans by a few national bureaucracies, will drive and push seaports and airports development across the country.

No comments: