Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 14 May 2014


I am hitting the road again with my driver, Leo on the wheels while on the lookout and – as always – with notebook jotting down observations as the trip moves on.

A year ago, I went north and covered northern Luzon again, crossing from the Ilocos to Cagayan Valley and then the Cordillera mountains from Tabuk to Bontok and later Baguio.

This time, I have a more adventurous agenda. I cover major Visayan islands. I am now successfully transported to Tacloban, having crossed the ferry at Matnog to Samar the other day. For the moment, I describe a few observations of value.

National roads are in general, driveable and pleasantly well-maintained. When it comes to road conditions, an observation could only be valid or relevant during the year it is made. Durability of the structure and habits of maintenance sometimes could extend that over a longer time.

In general, all the roads I have driven through – note that I have taken mainly the national roads connecting the provinces from Manila to Aparri and now to Tacloban – are passable by car, four-wheeled sedans. My vehicle though is a Montero.

My exception to this rule is the crossing of the mountains from Cagayan Valley to Baguio. Any reliable SUV can deal with difficult terrain in the face of dangerous patches of narrow breaks and landslide segments along mountain roads.

Cross-mountain route. During summer, the rains come like a bad temper in the mountains. My advice there is not to tempt it, although intrepid drivers of small buses (with expert helpers) ply daily between Tabuk and Bontoc.

A government functionary from Abra informed me that the best way to cross to Tabuk (on the Cagayan Valley direction) from his province located north of Baguio would be to use the Nueva Vizcaya junction toward Banaue through the route that branches from Isabela province. (This route still leads to some of the difficult stretches between Bontoc and Tabuk. The road to Tabuk, though, is quite good from Cagayan Valley.)

Most scenic mountain route. The most scenic driving route I have experienced is the Mount Data area, between Bontoc and Baguio. It is full of terraced farming, not necessarily the rice terraces. But it is a tricky road, with lots of zigs and zags.

The main problem is that the only hotels available are in Bontoc or in Sagada and they are relatively small, distant and challenging to reach for a weary traveller in mid-location during the drive. But the hotels are acceptable enough, as are those hotels located in Banaue, for most people who seek reasonable comfort.

The Bicol roads. The roads southwards from Manila to the Bicol Region are good. Beyond SLEX from Calamba exit, we find the road on the way to Lucena, Quezon and to the Bicol provinces.

For the most part, the road is in very good shape. It is undergoing maintenance and improvement of segments following the efforts already undertaken in widening the MacArthur Highway north of Manila to the Ilocos. This widening is taking place more slowly southward and does not go all the way even in Quezon province.

Upon reaching the Camarines provinces, the old narrow width of highway is still the rule. But the road is in good maintenance. Patches of repairs are happening all the way to the end of Albay.

The repairs are bothersome in Quezon, and in a few parts of Camarines Sur. It seems that Quezon roads received later funding for maintenance and repair than the Bicol provinces. However, roads in northern Luzon got funded even earlier.

Because the national roads are narrow, when “reblocking repairs are done”, one side of the road is closed and traffic sharing alternates between traffic coming in opposite directions. Some of these repairs are worsened by unfinished bridges that are under rebuilding or rehabilitation.

Acceptable inconvenience. Since serious work in progress is being done, I find such interruptions and inconveniences acceptable. Heavy equipment and the men are busy so that a short new road bed is put in place and that road in time will be in good shape again.

The roads in Sorsogon are for the most part the best among the southern roads. I was surprised by this, but have personally observed this during other trips in the past. One explanation, as one mayor put it (mayor Ester Hamor of Casiguran) is that the road bed is on firm ground while those in others less so.

That may be so, but another part might be heavier road traffic in the other provinces. Also, engineering issues related to drainage and design contribute to the weakening of roads. The Sorsogon roads are narrow but the widening of projects has begun for a few municipalities.

Across to Samar. With some exception to a few stretches, the roads in northern Samar starting from Allen toward southern (western) Samar are good. The roads become a problem as city limits are reached. In Calbayog and in Catbalogan, especially in the latter, the roads are erratic in quality. (The observation for Samar roads exclude those south of the turn to San Juanico bridge and around the eastern seaboard facing the Pacific.)

In Catbalogan City, the good national road ends where the Catbalogan city limits begin. Also, as the bad city roads end, the national road condition improves.

Why should this be so? Are not those who travel from other parts passing by the city roads connected to the highway entitled to good roads all the way?

“Improvements in road repair processes.” What I saw about national road repairs in the Bicol region impressed me. However, cities use the worst processes on road improvement.

In terms of approach, rehabilitation of national roads is taking less time and the outcome is of higher quality. In most of the repairs I have encountered, commensurate employment of heavy equipment is undertaken and workers perform much better under this setup.

The breaking of concrete, earth moving, or compacting of road bed – is uniformly performed by appropriate machines while the workers do their assigned tasks and an even quality results.

I also observed that repairs of roads are patching up operations, but are undertaken to replace broken segments of road. If a weak part needs repair, a band-aid solution is not used. A whole segment is cut off and replaced with a new segment of road.

At the beginning, this might be more expensive. However, this could prove to be more efficient and definitely less disruptive in the long run.

On this trip, I would observe repeatedly that the approach on road repairs for the national roads is not used within city limits. It happens whether the city is budget deprived (such as Catbalogan, Samar) or well funded (such as Tacloban, Leyte, after the Yolanda reconstruction phase — now).

I would welcome direct comments from the Department of Public Works and Highways on these observations.