Fighting for century-old Kennon Road
History says the summer capital could not have risen without the Kennon Road.
The American colonial government intended to build Baguio because of the mine prospects in neighboring Benguet towns and its potentials as a sanitarium, according to various accounts of the city’s origins.
But Dr. Howard Fry, in his book, “A History of the Mountain Province,” said the journey taken by Commissioners Dean Worcester and Luke Wright in July 1900 to Benguet “entailed a day’s journey by sea and a second day’s journey on horseback up the trail.”
“It was considered that [the lengthy travel] would reduce Baguio’s usefulness as a health resort since such a trip would entail too many difficulties for invalids,” Fry wrote.
The colonial government decided then that constructing the Benguet Road (Kennon Road’s original name) would provide the Americans a short route up the Benguet mountains.
A century later, the fastest route to the summer capital still defines how quickly the Baguio economy improves. So the government now plans to privatize the century-old Kennon to make it a modern, all-weather road.
The 34-kilometer road, popular to generations of travelers because of its scenic landscapes and sharp turns, has been chosen as one of the Aquino administration’s potential public-private partnership (PPP) projects to cut the drive from Manila to three to four hours, said Benguet Rep. Ronald Cosalan, chair of the House committee on public works.
But the American colonial government in the early 1900s had to allocate $2.7 million, considered excessive for the period, to complete Kennon Road. Baguio Rep. Bernardo Vergara, a civil engineer, said the government expects to shoulder a steep price in modernizing this already expensive road, owing to the fragility of mountain highways.
The National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) said the terrain makes Cordillera mountain roads “highly susceptible to road cuts or closures and accidents… [incurring] the highest in the annual number of road closures at 981 from 2004 to 2005, affecting some 238 km of national roads and resulting in roughly P1.171 billion in losses.”
“It is a known fact that maintenance in mountain roads is much more expensive than in lowland areas because of additional slope protection facilities, bio-engineering stabilizers, more sophisticated drainage structures, factors that are aggravated by the region’s vulnerability to rain-induced landslides with [the Cordillera] receiving the most rainfall nationwide at 500 to 3,500 millimeters annually,” Neda said.
When Baguio was devastated by the July 16, 1990 earthquake, then Public Works Secretary Gregorio Vigilar decided to permanently close the damaged Kennon Road, said Cosalan.
The government discovered 471 “disaster spots” along the route, which the Mines and Geosciences Bureau attributed to the fragility of the rock base, the abandoned mining operations near the road and the natural ground fractures that were undetectable in the 1900s.
Vigilar also described Kennon Road “the worst engineered road in the country’s history,” Cosalan recalled, citing accounts of the Kennon Road project at the turn of the 20th century.
Fry, in his book, said the colonial government commissioned Army Maj. Lyman Kennon (after whom the road is named) to complete the expensive road project that had outraged politicians in Washington, D.C. But American Governor General William Cameron Forbes said Kennon made rapid progress by “blasting his way through the friable rocks, around precipitous and treacherous-sided mountains so steep as to be in a state of unstable equilibrium.”
Kennon wrote an Aug. 31, 1905, account for the US Secretary of Commerce, acknowledging what Baguio residents have learned to live with for more than a century later: “The zigzag is on a solid basis and a secure foundation, the location having been so selected as to put it, as a rule, on solid rock … Being a new road in mountainous country, the cost of maintenance for two years will be relatively high, on account of landslides, which will diminish in number and volume after the first rainy season, and which will have to be removed from the roadbed.”
Cosalan said DPWH had proposed to replace Kennon Road with a zigzag road from Itogon, Benguet, to San Manuel, Pangasinan.
But Baguio residents fought to reopen Kennon Road instead. In March 1991, then Baguio Mayor Jaime Bugnosen wrote then President Corazon Aquino, urging her to fund the restoration of Kennon Road and proposing for the first time to offer the road as a build-operate-transfer project, the precursor of today’s PPP.
A comprehensive geological and engineering report conducted by a Japanese team concluded in 1991 that government would need P3.2 billion to convert the historic road into an all-weather road, by building 471 tunnels worth P1.215 billion, with concrete encasement and 1.2-meter thick concrete roof, to protect vehicles from falling rocks.
Government could not afford the price. It shelled out P386 million instead to repave Kennon Road, which opened to traffic on Sept. 1, 1991, the summer capital’s foundation day.
Twenty-one years later, the government has concluded that maintaining Kennon Road proved costlier than creating an all-weather Kennon Road, augmented by a new series of bridges along Bued River and abandoning the landslide-prone areas of the scenic road, Vergara said.
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