Roxas: “I am a problem solver”

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on October 15, 2011

“I see my team and myself as a collective problem solver,” Department of Transportation & Communications (DOTC) secretary Manuel A. Roxas, II told a packed ballroom of top executives last week. Mr. Roxas doesn’t view himself or his department as just a problem solver, but like other top officials in the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino, III, he’s had to address myriad long-festering, frightening problems symbolizing what’s wrong with the Philippines.

Appointed just 90 days ago, Mr. Roxas says the department’s emergency problems in that timeframe included accidents, catastrophes, and near-catastrophes that are the products of long-standing issues that have been inconveniently ignored by past administrations. They include public utility vehicle accidents and regular mishaps at sea—both astoundingly regular occurrences as a result of ineffective and uninspired regulatory action and inaction.

Still, Mr. Roxas and his new team—handpicked to reflect his reorganization of the department—have seemingly made some meaningful progress. He told his admiring audience that the department has effectively sought to reconfigure onerous infrastructure contracts with multinational firms despite misgivings by their country sponsors who are providing low-interest loans.

He’s also been at work reviewing, structuring, and obtaining approvals for more P500 billion in new infrastructure projects, which Mr. Roxas says will be funded through what he calls a hybrid Public-Private Partnership scheme that may involve private-sector concessions as well as overseas development aid (ODA) and internal funding. In other words, whatever configuration produces the funding required to get projects going under fair and equitable terms.

The new transportation secretary says his department has also “studied and mapped out key points of intervention to make transport safer, more reliable, and efficient for our people.”

Mr. Roxas lamented the fact that rail systems within the National Capital Region were all built to different specifications, limiting interconnection capabilities and increasing maintenance costs; that the North Rail project was turned into a lumbering commuter line instead of a high-speed airport express; and that bus operators encourage drivers to drive homicidally to earn more money.

Aside from solving problems, Mr. Roxas sees his department as a better regulator than in the past, an operator-custodian of transport infrastructure and systems, and a promoter and developer. To perform these roles, he has restructured DOTC from a vertically-configured organization requiring multiple skillsets per division to a specialist, task-oriented agency run by domain experts.

Operations experts now focus on operations. Planning experts on planning. Project implementation experts on project implementation. That’s not rocket science, but Roxas’ approach to revitalizing DOTC seemed to leave many in the audience scratching their heads, wondering why this took decades to figure out. Whether his organizational logic will prove effective remains to be seen. But Mr. Roxas promised to report back in a year with results.

In his problem solving role, Mr. Roxas rightly is focused on three big priorities: the North Rail project, Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and the Greater Maritime Access Roll On-Roll Off (GMA RoRo) initiative. Originally undertaken by the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the North Rail project was hobbled from its inception by allegations of corruption.

During his recent China trip, Mr. Aquino convinced China’s President Hu Jin Tao and Premier Wen Jiabao to reconfigure the contract to make it more equitable to the Philippines. And more practical. The new project will run from the central business district—presumably somewhere in Makati—to the Clark Freeport Zone, making the notion of Clark as the principal international gateway a realistic proposition.

The previous plan was 15 kilometers short of that goal—on each end. Better technology will be used, providing a less than 90-minute ride. “In short, think Hong Kong’s Airport Express,” Mr. Roxas told the audience.

President Aquino reportedly wants Terminal 3—which was originally scheduled to open almost a decade ago—fully operational by the end of this year. Mr. Roxas said government has proposed that three international experts appraise the project to arrive at just compensation for the consortium that built the terminal, Piatco. It paid $350 million in construction and other costs but is claiming $800 million to cover lost operational income.

Since Piatco has rejected the appraisal approach, it’s unclear how Mr. Roxas intends to achieve Mr. Aquino’s goal. But he is sure it won’t involve more than “a cent beyond what is proper.” Mr. Roxas reported more encouraging progress on the RoRo initiative. The French government-backed consortium Eiffel Matiere has agreed to renegotiate this P16 billion undertaking to lower costs and ensure it is aligned with Philippine needs and circumstances.

Mr. Roxas has an awful job. It’s hard to imagine why any honest official would want it, considering the magnitude of the challenges. I’m anxious to see what this smart, capable official will report a year from now, although if he’s successful, we’ll already be celebrating.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn. Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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