'Challenge accepted': Villar confident DPWH can complete projects

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 14) — The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) is confident it can complete its infrastructure projects on time, despite pressures and challenges, Secretary Mark Villar said Saturday.

Admitting he is under pressure to fast-track the completion of projects, the Secretary asserted that he is taking up the challenge.

"I think marami tayong project ngayon (we have many projects) and siyempre gusto nating i-fast-track lahat po ng (and we want to fast-track all) projects lalo na sa (especially) infrastructure, so I think that's a challenge and we accept that challenge from the President," Villar said.

President Rodrigo Duterte last week said he will hold his Cabinet members accountable for the delays in government projects. He even singled out Villar, who heads one of the agencies leading the administration's ambitious Build, Build, Build program.

(READ: Duterte to make Secretaries liable for project delays)

"We're under pressure from everyone, from the Filipino people, from the President, kailangan talaga namin tapusin itong mga project (we really need to finish these projects). Marami pong challenges, but kami naman sa DPWH ay very confident na kaya naman namin (we have many challenges but we in the DPWH are very confident that we can do it)," Villar said.

The Secretary said right-of-way issues are their biggest challenges, but he assured the department has already involved lawyers and engineers to make things faster.

"Pipilitin naman namin ang target namin, but you know, hindi naman lahat ng factors mako-control katulad ng weather. (We will push to achieve our target, but we cannot control all factors such as the weather.) But as much as possible we will stick to our target," he said.

Two months ahead

Villar had inspected some of DPWH's ongoing projects, including the Cavite-Laguna Expressway (CALAX) this week.

He said the first seven-kilometer portion of the project may be opened to motorists before December this year, two months ahead of its original launch.

The CALAX is a 45-kilometer four-lane closed-system toll road connecting the Cavite Expressway (Cavitex) and South Luzon Expressway (SLEX).

It will start from the Cavitex in Kawit, Cavite and end at the SLEX Mamplasan Interchange in Biñan, Laguna.

The seven-kilometer part will stretch from Mamplasan Interchange to Laguna Boulevard.

Once operational, travel time between the said areas will be cut from 20 minutes to 10 minutes, Villar said, adding that 7,300 vehicles are expected to pass by this portion of CALAX.

'No underspending'

Meanhwile, Villar denied that his agency underspent its last year's budget contrary to recent media reports.

He said they may have underspent only on multi-year projects or those that take over one year to be completed.

Compared to other agencies, Villar said that the DPWH had spent the most on projects that could be finished for 2017 alone.

"Ang disbursements namin (Our disbursements) that year was P400 billion which is the highest, percentage wise and even in absolute value  the highest obligation and the highest disbursement rate," he said.

Cash-based budget

The administration early this year shifted from an obligation-based to a cash-based budget, a set-up requiring all government agencies to spend their entire budget within a year.

Prior to this, agencies can extend their spending to two years.

In an interview with CNN Philippines' Business Roundup on Friday, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said this move aims to assure that projects will be rolled out faster.

(READ: ₱3.757-T budget for 2019 up for Congress approval)

"The beauty of the cash budget system is that you impose discipline on agencies. Do not put in a request if you think you cannot implement it the following year," Diokno stressed.

This rule, however, will not be implemented for multi-year projects, as long as the breakdown of the budget per year is indicated.

"In the case of multi-year projects, there's no change. We still need what we call  a multi-year obligational authority for national government agencies, but you have to indicate how much you spend for [each year]," Diokno said.