All shook up in the road

Orly Mercado

Posted on August 22, 2007

In the early nineties, I struck up a conversation with a businessman on a plane ride to Cebu city. He introduced me to his American partner. I asked them what line of business they were in. The visitor was filled with enthusiasm. He said he was going to bring in machinery that could recycle asphalt pavements. From what I gathered, they had the technology to extract the asphalt from roads that are being repaired and reuse it.

Without meaning to dampen their enthusiasm, I expressed my reservations about their venture. I thought that most of our asphalt roads are really made of substandard materials to begin with. I half jokingly said that some roads look like the asphalt binder was similar to artificial coloring in food products. So what was there to extract and recycle?

I told them the story of a highway project from central Luzon to the country’s summer capital Baguio. In the 1970s a Korean contractor paved this highway. They did a good job. Even after a huge flood most of the road remained intact. The difference was obvious when compared to other asphalt roads done by local contractors. They were full of potholes. If more than three calesa-pulling horses peed at the same time, it was enough to create a pothole.

I remembered that converation as my driver was maneuvering to avoid the potholes in Metro Manila. Two typhoons brought heavy rains and floods the past week since my family and I came home for our summer break. Nothing seems to change.

Today the issue of substandard construction is not merely a matter of inconvenience. People are dying as bridges collapse in China and even the United States. And the latest tragedies happened even without earthquakes. Corruption in the construction business continues to plague both rich and poor countries.

Throwing money at this chronic problem does not work. The quality of our roads and bridges is testament to the depth and persistence of corruption in the construction industry.

I do not know what happened to the businessmen I met in the plane almost two decades ago. I can only surmise that the venture never prospered. In my travels around the country I have not seen the recycling machinery they were talking about. But I still see a lot of potholes.

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