REPORTS of port congestion in Manila will hopefully nudge policymakers to revisit plans to move much of the shipping and logistics operations from the National Capital Region (NCR or Metro Manila) to Batangas. The problem comes at a bad time when economic recovery seems to be picking up pace. Higher costs attributed to inefficiencies could weigh down the rebound expected.
Port congestion is not merely a headache for those in shipping and logistics. Consumers are also affected, as higher transportation costs of goods are passed on to them. Naturally, that adds pressure to the already high inflation rate.
The Confederation of Truckers Association of the Philippines (CTAP) told several news organizations recently that logistics costs have ballooned to 27 percent, the highest in Asia. The Port Truckers Customs Brokers Multipurpose Cooperative corroborated that. The CTAP said the added costs for fees and processing are passed on to consumers.
Fortunately for the relatively new Marcos government, it does not have to start from scratch. The move suggested here is actually an old idea. There was a 1991 study on Batangas port development that was conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. There may have been other plans as old or older. Regrettably, the government has a poor record in effective implementation of good plans.
Batangas City is only 107.5 kilometers away from Metro Manila, and expansion of the metropolis has been heading southward. Because of that, Batangas, along with neighboring provinces, has become more significant. The provincial cluster Calabarzon — referring to Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon — contributes 15 percent to the total national economy.
If the move to Batangas is to be considered again, policymakers in office today could begin by asking some key questions. What drives up costs in shipping to Batangas instead of Manila? Does the Batangas port have the equipment and personnel ready to process additional cargo quicker or more efficiently than in Manila? And how are the roads and bridges needed to move cargo from the Batangas port to Metro Manila and other destinations across Luzon?
Fortunately, the Marcos administration is continuing to reduce red tape and modernize government systems. Moreover, there is a commitment to build more infrastructure, not just roads but also railways. Moving cargo by rail seems better than transporting them on lorries. That would reduce the number of vehicles on the road and emissions, which are blamed for climate change. Also, moving cargo by rail would lessen the exposure of truck firms to corrupt traffic enforcers.
Lastly, the new administration is also looking to digitalize government operations. Port management should be part of that, as that would hasten processing and limit opportunities for graft and corruption.
Transferring the bulk of the port business to Batangas sounds appealing because that would help ease traffic congestion in Metro Manila. The Philippines loses P5 billion daily because of it, mainly in opportunity costs for labor and added fuel consumption.
For now, commuters and motorists can merely complain about trucks occupying much of the road and causing damage because of their cargo's weight. Repairing the road damage adds burden to taxpayers and causes even more traffic.
In fairness to the truckers, they provide an essential service. No economy today can do without a transportation system for goods, not even in the digital age. Physical goods cannot be delivered via the information superhighway, as some truckers might quip.
Of course, traffic congestion was not an issue when everything was locked down at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. But as the economy recovers, traffic congestion has returned. And with the Christmas season approaching, traffic congestion will likely get worse, just like before the health crisis. Congestion at the port could deteriorate further, as more cargoes arrive ahead of the biggest retail shopping season of the year.
On the bright side, the government has an opportunity to resolve more than one problem by putting order at the Manila ports. Of course, solutions are easier said than done, as history shows. But with a young government in place, there is renewed hope that things will be done better this time.
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