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Bicol Express

January 14, 2020 - Tuesday 4:01 AM by Jimmy Laking

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The one big news that Bicolanos are talking about these days is coming in pair. It’s two in one, thanks to the Build, Build, Build program of the Duterte administration.

The first is the completion this year of the P4.8-billion Bicol International Airport (BIA) in Daraga, Albay.

The BIA actually started way back in 2005 but its completion has been rescheduled many times for one reason or another.

Once opened this year, it will provide tourists the opportunity to land right where Mayon Volcano watches like a guardian angel over the Bicol region.

Albay Rep. Joey S. Salceda said the BIA will provide tourists a “most-scenic ringside view” of the world-famous Mayon Volcano while landing. The airport is also within a few minutes’ ride to the Cagsawa Ruins or the remains of a church destroyed by Mayon when it erupted in 1814.

The other game-changer is that construction work will also begin this year on the P175-billion Philippine National Railways (PNR) South Haul that stretches from Calamba City in Laguna all way to Matnog at the southernmost tip of Sorsogon. This will be the "Bicol Express" in a new, modern form.

Salceda said both the BIA and the PNR South Hall are crucial to the country’s development program. Both are also expected to unlock the economic potential of the region.

The outspoken Albay congressman said work is expected to begin in the second quarter for the 408-kilometers railway segment.

The whole stretch consists of 639-kilometer railroad tracks from Manila to Sorsogon and is expected to cut the Manila-Legazpi travel time to less than five hours.

Salceda said the project is “tediously designed as a key” to unlock the economic potentials of both the southern Tagalog region and the Bicol region. That it will become a reality in a few years from now is also a certainty.

The project is listed as part of the Build, Build, Build programs included in the official development assistance agreement between China and the Philippines.

Early last year, former Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito told students of the University of Southern Philippines that only through a national railway system can the Philippines get over the hump.

“The best efforts of government notwithstanding, we are still an emerging economy that is far from globally competitive,” he said.

The primary culprit, he said, is that the Philippines has the worst infrastructure in the ASEAN. In contrast, Singapore is ranked No. 2 with a score of 6.5 percent (in a scale of 1.0 to 7.0), followed by Malaysia at 24 with a score of 5.5 percent, Thailand with 49 at 4.4 percent and Indonesia at 60 with 4.2 percent score.

In his study of Philippine railways, Dr. Augusto V. de Viana of the National Historical Commission considered it odd that the Philippines was one of the rare countries that “had not built a strong, reliable, and modern railway system.”

He added: “Most countries—rich and poor—take pride in their railway system. The train provides a fast, inexpensive, and comfortable system of transportation. It helps reduce road traffic and contributes to cleaner air. Developed and developing nations have also found the railways to be a great national unifying force and a solvent for class divisions.”

Finally, let us hear it from Enrique Penalosa, mayor of Bogotá (Bolivia) in 1998-2001: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars, it’s where the rich ride public transportation.”

With Bicol taking the lead, other regions will not be far behind, including this part of Mindanao.