A former US air base north-west of Manila has become a key plank in the infrastructure programme unveiled by Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte.

It still takes hours to cover the 100 kilometres separating Manila from the Clark Freeport Zone as traffic in and out of the city’s metropolitan area remains bad. However, this matter may be about to improve, as Mr Duterte is making the most of his fresh mandate and huge popularity to push ahead with one of the country’s most ambitious infrastructure projects since the era of long-time dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

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Game changer?

This project would transform the axis running between Manila, Clark and on to the port of Subic (another former US naval base) into a major hub designed to foster economic development and decongest the Manila metropolitan area.

US personnel hastily vacated Clark and Subic in 1991, when the contiguous volcano Mount Pinatubo erupted, enveloping the whole area and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people living there.

The eruption coincided with the decision by the Filipino Senate not to renew the treaty granting Washington the right to hold a military presence in the country, traceable back to the beginning of the 20th century. The overall task of redeveloping former US military areas and installations fell on the newly established Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA), which is now at the forefront of Mr Duterte’s latest infrastructure push.

“The idea is to make Clark into a major logistics hub,” says Vivencio Dizon, BCDA’s CEO. Clark is already home to a flourishing free economic zone that employs about 89,000 people in more than 800 companies active in a range of sectors, from manufacturing to business process outsourcing, hospitality and gambling.

Connecting to the world

Clark also boasts an international airport with carriers such as Qatar Airways, Emirates and Air Asia connecting it daily with major destinations in the country, Asia and the Middle East. By appointing as transportation secretary Arthur Tugade – who led the Clark Development Corporation (CDC), which manages the zone on behalf of the BCDA, between 2012 and 2016 – Mr Duterte made clear the pivotal role of the area in his overall vision.

“[Mr Tugade] knows that nobody can stop development of the Clark Freeport Zone, that’s why Mr Duterte himself wants to speed it up and thus decongest Manila,” says Rodem R Perez, head for investment promotion at the CDC. 

The government has now unveiled its plan to connect Clark’s international airport with two railway lines, one going south-east to Manila, the other south-west to the Subic port. The same airport will undergo a massive upgrade aimed at doubling current capacity from 4 million passengers a year to 8 million in an initial phase. This could rise to 18 million in its final stage of development, which would give the government space to serve local demand and relieve pressure from the overly congested terminals of Ninoy Aquino airport in Manila.

Feasibility studies are now being done, and the government plans to have the new railways and airport up and running by the end of its legislature in 2020, according to the BCDA’s Mr Dizon.

Infrastructure plans in the Philippines have often been derailed in the past as they came up against the country’s stifling red tape and corruption. Mr Duterte has pledged to change this. Should he deliver, the future of Clark will be busier than ever.