Of lukewarm coffee and new roads

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One For The Road

Department of Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar speaks with the author at a construction site.

ANOTHER alarm goes off at the crack of dawn. Another early morning drive in total darkness. I drag myself out of the house — still a little disoriented from the lack of sleep — and set my destination via a link that was sent over Viber to an unmapped location. I arrive at a very non-descript corrugated iron gate that is pulled open just wide enough for my car to squeeze in then is immediately shut behind me. I park, get handed a hard hat, a reflectorized vest, and a lukewarm cup of coffee. I wait.

I’ve been getting more and more of these calls recently and, as much as I am not a morning person, I have come to look forward to them; because when Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Secretary Mark Villar calls and asks to meet at a construction site at an ungodly hour, in my experience, it’s always good news.

Today is another one of those days. It’s Thursday, February 13, a day before Valentine’s. We are standing on a tiny blue digital dot in the middle of the Pasig River and Sec. Mark is talking excitedly about his big date. “By second quarter of next year, this will cut travel time from BGC to Ortigas down from one hour to just 11 minutes.” He says quite proudly. That digital blue dot we are standing on is, of course, the new BGC-Ortigas Link. It’s only a blue dot now because there’s no map for it yet — mainly because there’s no bridge here yet, but that is exactly why Sec. Mark invited me here. He is excited to show me.

“See how close it is now?” Sec. Mark points at the roughly 100-meter gap between the Ortigas side and the BGC side as we stand on the edge listening to him speak about his project like an ob-gyn describing an ultrasound to expecting parents. “We are using what they call ‘traveling form’ technology to connect it. Every three days, you will see this gap move about eight meters,” which is roughly the same speed of the cars along EDSA, I cut in. Sec. Mark laughs out loud, but this time with a lot more confidence and less weight than I have seen before.

I say that because three years ago, that joke probably would have been taken more personally. Simply because, with frustration at an all-time high and not a solution in sight, Sec. Mark knew that a lot of that responsibility and hate would land on his desk.

Sure, he could argue that he inherited those problems, but hate is still hate and traffic is still traffic — inherited or otherwise. Which is why the DPWH secretary and his team spent the last three years quietly developing 23 different decongestion plans for EDSA — the biggest of which will be the NLEX/SLEX/Skyway connector. There are also nine bridges being built across the Pasig River — all of which will provide a vital link between the north and south of Metro Manila — expected to be completed under his term.

These are all micro solutions that are designed to form a macro one by creating opportunities outside Metro Manila by providing a road network that can serve as the economic backbone of our nation’s capital. The full effect will only be felt once completed, of course, but Sec. Mark and his team are confident that we will be feeling it more and more over the next couple of years because we will have just crossed the “it will get worse before it will get better” hump. So while it will still take time — and the improvements incremental — every new road opening, bridge opening, or additional piece of infra will slowly untie this knot that we have come to know as Metro Manila.

I’m sure there are those who feel that it can’t come quick enough, and I feel you. We all do. But this is not something that can be done overnight; this is something that is usually done in the middle of it, while everyone is sleeping and only a quiet few are working around the clock so they can set up super early morning meetings with lukewarm coffee with people like me, so they can announce another new section of road that should bring us one step closer to the dream of a city that never sleeps but one that can finally start moving again.

And that will always be something worth getting up for.