In September 2017, the President expressed the opinion that the Road Board, a government agency, must go. This was seconded by House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, who had noted that the board had lost or misused about P91 billion in public funds from 2001 to 2012. Unsurprisingly, by May this year, the House of Representatives approved a bill to abolish the board.
The Road Board was created in 2000 through Republic Act 8794. What Congress did at the time was to revise and raise the registration fees collected from car owners into what is now known as the Motor Vehicle User’s Charge or MVUC. And, all these registration fees collected by the government were earmarked primarily for spending on road improvements and road safety.
Section 7 of that law also stated that, “a Road Board to implement the prudent and efficient management and utilization of the special funds [MVUC] shall be organized by the President of the Philippines. The Road Board shall be composed of seven (7) members, with the secretary of the DPWH as ex-officio head, and the secretaries of the Department of Finance, Budget and Management, and the Transportation and Communication, as ex-officio members. The remaining three (3) members shall come from transport and motorist organization, which have been in existence and active for the last five (5) years prior to this Act. They shall be appointed for the term of two (2) years each by the President of the Philippines upon the recommendation of the secretaries of the DPWH and the DOTC.”
The same section also required that, “All monies collected under this Act shall be earmarked solely and used exclusively (1) for road maintenance and the improvement of the road drainage, (2) for the installation of adequate and efficient traffic lights and road safety devices, and (3) for the air pollution control”.
Of all MVUC fees collected, 80% will go to a Special Road Support Fund and 5% will go to a Special Local Road Fund. Both funds will be under the DPWH. Then, 7.5% will go to the Special Vehicle Pollution Control Fund under the DOTC. The remaining 7.5% will go to a Special Road Safety Fund.
Then, 70% of the Special Road Support Fund under DPWH should be used exclusively for the maintenance of, and the improvement of drainage of national primary roads. The remaining 30% should go to the maintenance, and improvement of drainage of national secondary roads throughout the country.
Meanwhile, the cost of installation of adequate and efficient traffic lights and road safety devices throughout the country, where such traffic lights and safety devices are needed, will come from the Special Road Safety Fund. It is unclear in RA 8794, however, which agency is to administer this safety fund.
But while RA 8794 appears to have been well-intended, the Road Board’s 18-year existence since 2000 has been mired in scandal and controversy, including allegations of misuse, abuse and corruption, as well as rumors that the ambush and death of a Public Works undersecretary in 2007 may have been connected to the Road Board as well.
In 2009, then senator Miriam Defensor Santiago even went all out against the Road Board for what she termed as “apocalyptic corruption” of about P60.5 billion in MVUC fees, or commonly known as road user’s tax. Miriam’s legislative inquiry resulted in the recommending the filing of charges against then Public Works and Road Board officials.
Miriam also recommended that RA 8794 or the Motor Vehicles User’s Charge Act should either be amended or repealed, in order to provide for the deposit of road taxes directly with the National Treasury, and for the inclusion of its appropriations in the national budget in order to assure legislative oversight. Santiago also wanted the creation of a Special Senate Oversight Committee on the Road Users’ Tax.
Last year, Speaker Alvarez alleged that audit reports indicated illegal use of funds by the board amounting to about P91 billion from 2001 to December 2012, including discrepancies amounting to P1.495 billion in what the Land Transportation Office claims to have collected in MVUC fees and what the Bureau of the Treasury has certified as amounts collected.
And just yesterday, the Philippine Star reported that billions of pesos in MVUC fees were wasted by the Road Board by mismanaging a highway lighting program that started in 2013. The Star reported that the Commission on Audit (COA), in a 2017 report, noted that the P3.97-billion National Road Lighting Program was not efficiently and effectively implemented in 2013-2016 because it was carried out by the Road Board Secretariat, which did not have the technical capability and was not mandated to implement infrastructure projects.
The Star quoted the audit report as noting the delayed implementation of projects, and the construction of lamp posts without luminaries or lights and non-replacement of busted and/or missing lights. “Consequently, the public was deprived of the benefits that could have been derived from eco-friendly and sufficiently lit roads,” the COA report reportedly read.
Given all this, I believe it is timely for Congress to finally act on this matter. I had believed in the value of having a Road Board, as with the practice abroad, and in earmarking car registration fees for road improvement and road safety projects. I also thought private sector representation in a government unit can help improve accountability and deter corruption.
However, I can now admit to being wrong. Experience shows us, through 18 years of the Road Board, that it takes only a few corrupt or incompetent officials to ruin even the best of plans or programs. In this line, I guess it is better to just get rid of the board now, than lose more government money to incompetence and corruption.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council