POSTSCRIPT / October 3, 2006 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Power system flaws, billboards draw flak

REAL TEST: When it comes to such “unstoppable” crimes as contracted assassinations and crimes of passion, the real test of the police is not in preventing them (they can’t) but in their solving these crimes with dispatch.

In the same way, the test of our national power system is not in its being impregnable to natural calamities (it is not and cannot hope to be that) but in how fast it can recover when hit.

No one could have prevented a killer typhoon like “Milenyo” from knocking down our power infrastructure, but the ultimate test is how fast the crippled system can rise and recover.

On that account, our power system – encompassing generation, transmission, distribution, maintenance – leaves much to be desired.

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DARK & DRY: So that now, five days after “Milenyo” left our power system in shambles, many parts of the national capital and nearby regions are still literally dark. (They are also dry, because water service is widely dependent on electricity.)

With 75 percent as passing grade, native consumers and foreign investors stuck in this calamity area would be charitable to give our power system and its administrators a grade of 55 percent.

The double tragedy is that while we see the problem and talk endlessly about it, in the end we would be back to facing exactly the same problem, stuck in the same situation apparently waiting for the next disaster.

We talk too much, but do little.

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NOTHING MOVES: Watching President Gloria Arroyo in motion gives a graphic picture of how serious is our problem as a nation caught in a perpetual disaster area.

Every time a natural disaster strikes, the President calls a big meeting, reviews the situation with the heads of agencies, folders in hand, and then issues like a miracle worker the orders for everybody to do this and that.

Despite having existed in this natural disaster area for generations, the nation has not developed even just a conditioned reflex of sorts. Why don’t we have yet a time-tested system that automatically springs into action when triggering events occur?

Aside from spelling out in detail what each agency head is to do, why does the President have to decide first that certain amounts have to be released for this and that calamity expenditure?

Nothing moves without the President?

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WHY NOT TREES?: It is a commentary on our values and priorities that instead of trees, we have planted a forest of advertising billboards along our urban thoroughfares and national highways.

Ideally, there should be no advertising billboards marring the landscape, assailing the senses and warping our values. But there are — and it seems we have no choice but to adapt to them like we are forced to live with air pollution along EDSA.

Now and then we hear whimpers of protests, but the advocates of a free market always have won. It took a killer typhoon to teach us the folly of such twisted policies and priorities.

Question: Will we learn the lesson on billboards this time?

My answer: I doubt it. Even now, there is already a cacophony of voices coming from all over that, I suspect, the debate will end in a draw or at best in only a little concession to the ban-the-billboards advocates.

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PRO-BILLBOARDS: I have heard only two passable arguments for allowing outdoor billboards:

  1. Billboards are, as Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez has said from one side of his mouth, an aspect of free expression, a right enshrined in the Constitution.
  2. Their removal, according to industry moguls, would render thousands of poor workers jobless, collapse some outdoor advertising firms, and cut local government revenue.

The first argument, a variation of freedom of speech, can be dismissed with the simple line that such a right is not absolute, that there are reasonable and necessary limits as dictated by the rights and needs of the greater majority.

The second argument is much like the reasoning always trotted out when a big service sector is about to be hit by a policy shift.

When, for instance, the banning of such World War II relics as jeepneys is hinted at, drivers, their association leaders, and operators threaten mayhem while asking what would happen to their families dependent on their continued pasada.

In the higher public interest, both arguments can be safely dismissed, but you know how politicians’ minds work.

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COMPROMISE: After the debates over billboards, the solution that is likely to emerge is one of a political compromise.

Instead of an outright ban, officials would opt for mere regulation — meaning they would simply draw up rules for the continued proliferation of billboards despite their admittedly being offensive and dangerous.

Although many officials, MMDA chairman Bayani Fernando prominently one of them, have pointed out that there are existing laws regulating billboards, it seems that Malacanang wants to play a key role by issuing shortly an Administrative Order.

With lobbyists and influence peddlers already at work, it would not be surprising to see the coming AO as a masterpiece of another political compromise.

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ANTI-BILLBOARDS: Despite the near-certainty of a compromise coming up, let us push the arguments against billboards polluting the landscape, assailing our sensibilities and posing a serious threat to public safety.

In most civilized countries, there are no such advertising billboards along public roads. What they have are beautiful trees, flowering shrubs and breathtaking scenery.

I thought we are expert copycats. If we are too lazy to think, why don’t we just do what they do?

In the few places where they allow billboards, these are set back far away from the road and spaced out so as not to compete with traffic signs and pose a serious danger to motorists. They are made as unobtrusive as possible.

Ads in print and broadcast media can usually be avoided or ignored because the reader, listener or viewer has a choice of not reading or switching on his radio or TV, but billboards’ omnipresence leaves no such option to passing motorists.

We are talking here of the normal billboards. What about those billboards that flaunt or inflict sex and such obscenity upon the public, including impressionable youths, 24 hours a day seven days a week?

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STRUCTURAL POINTS: Other important points are the structural soundness and location of billboards.

If they are not to be totally banned, there should be a limitation to their size and height. The display area, especially when covered with a tarpaulin or a board catches the wind whose destructive force depends on its velocity and the display area absorbing the force.

There will be shearing, as well as a toppling effect, if the scaffolding or frame is rigid. There should be rules on how secure the footings should be, aside of course from the size and strength of the materials used in relation to the weight that the frame carries as well as the expected wind force.

There should be consideration also for earthquakes and other unusual occurrences that can cause the billboard to collapse.

All that is engineering, the details of which can easily be computed.

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WHERE’S THE OWNER?: As we have said earlier, billboards must be set back far enough from the road. They should also be spaced out, with experts setting a maximum number of billboards per kilometer of road.

As in a building, there should be ample space around it to minimize damage or injury in case the billboard collapses. No billboard should be erected atop a building not designed to carry such an extra load.

Some lighted displays or billboards (like that one at the Guadalupe bridge in Makati that I think is owned by the city government) are so bright that they blind drivers and cause accidents. City Hall should serve as a model of safety and good sense.

And then, anybody putting up a billboard must post a bond to cover possible injury to persons, damage to property and the expense for clearing up in case it collapses or has to be removed.

Look at that giant billboard that collapsed on EDSA near Estrella St. in Makati. Only MMDA personnel are removing it. Where is the billboard owner who erected it? He should be arrested and chained to the scaffolding.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 3, 2006)

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