Boo Chanco | Philstar | January 30, 2017

Last Monday, I caught a news report on Cathy Yang’s Business Nightly on ANC about DOTr officials announcing grandiose plans to deliver civilized rail systems for the country. I found it hard to suppress a yawn and a guffaw as well.

The new head of PNR, the same guy who started running MRT-3 to the ground during the Arroyo regime, was trying to make the public believe they would soon restore rail lines to Bicol among other areas. I hope they can prove me wrong for our sake, but I simply cannot believe they can deliver during President Duterte's term.

Even if DOTr officials are the best professionals who know their railroad business well, and they are not, they are likely to run out of time because decisions have yet to be made. They also have to deal with all the squatters who have encroached on the PNR right of way. Relocating those squatters is easier said than done.

Let me explain why it is difficult to believe they can deliver those railway plans within Duterte's term.

Anything the government does take a lot of time. Look at that LRT 2 extension to Masinag. It took at least four years for the Arroyo administration to plan for it. It took the Aquino watch almost all six years of its term to get it started. Indeed, six months into the Duterte administration and they still have to issue the notice-to-proceed construction of the stations and hold a public bidding for the power system, the tracks and the signaling system.

And the DOTr officials told that public forum last Monday that they expect the Masinag extension to be usable by the public in September 2019 or just about two years from now, assuming a modest delay. Yet, this project just extends an existing LRT line by four kilometers. They have no right of way problems too.

Think about it. Twelve years for four kilometers and no right of way problems. That Bicol line runs about 500 kilometers, with squatter problems in PNR's right of way. That should take close to eternity to deliver, unless our officials get out of the way and just let Japan or China handle everything.

For the Mindanao railways, there will also be peace and order considerations along the route. Just ask the National Grid Corporation about their serious problems with their transmission towers.

That's why I am also not confident about the North Rail lines. DOTr has not made a final decision on whether to allow the Japanese to do Tutuban to Malolos, which to me is not as urgent as the Clark to Makati/NAIA fast train to connect Clark to NAIA.

The extension of LRT-1 to Bacoor is also plagued by government inability to deliver the right of way. I assume, the MPIC/Ayala consortium that won the project will charge the government for opportunity cost.

Transport Secretary Art Tugade will say these problems show he really needs emergency powers and he is correct. But beyond emergency powers, I doubt the capability of the DOTr's bureaucracy as well as that of its agencies (LRTA, PNR).

They have proven technical deficit problems. What they are good at is citing excuses. In the Masinag case they essentially blame government rules and Japanese ODA requirement for their failure to deliver.

On the common station, Tugade did not close the issue with the show of force photo op involving the taipans with interests in the infrastructure. Bayan Muna and other leftist groups say the cost has ballooned to P2.8 billion from P578 million in the process of appeasing Ayala, SM and San Miguel.

A technical source familiar with the very early stages of the project told me the reference cost for a simple transfer station at Trinoma in 2007 is about P300M. But it is not a full station and performed a much different function.

"If you go back to the original designs in 2007, the cost of the two (separate stations) was P300M for Trinoma side and another P300M for North Ave side or total P600M. What do we gain and what penalties do we pay by making it "common" needs to be looked at objectively. Is it worth the almost P 2.2B additional outlay?"

According to another technical source not affiliated with government or the private interested parties, "if they stayed with the original concept then they would lose the ability to interconnect the rail systems for LRT-1 and MRT-3." This is this source's recollection of what happened:

"Original design as bid in 2007 with only a LRT-1 station at Trinoma, cost P1.4B (August 2007).

"In June 2008, DOTC decreed that LRTA must develop a common station for LRT-1, MRT-3 and MRT-7.

"The concept development for the common station started in August 2008 took a long time to be finalized (like any committee developed plan) and an even much longer time to get funded. In the meantime, construction of the LRT1 extension from Balintawak to Trinoma was on-going.

"The first common station concept in Sept 2008 had reinforced concrete frame and cost of P1.5 billion. Only one track for MRT-3 and LRT-1 and two for MRT-7. This was premised on immediate funding to avoid conflicts with ongoing construction. Funding never developed.

"Allowance was made in the design to allow construction of the common station at SM by modifying the alignment and construction of station foundations along the centerline of EDSA to avoid future problems.

"Due to delays in funding approval, it took a while to develop the second concept which was delivered in June 2011. It costs P2.1B using structural steel, but still with only one track for LRT-1 and one for MRT-3 and two tracks for MRT-7. This was less than desirable since there was no option for expansion.

"In July 2013, DOTC directed the station be moved to Trinoma with a similar configuration to the original concept with walkways to MRT-3 and MRT-7. Cost P1.4B. This apparently satisfied no one.

"In October 2013, a concept was developed for the SM site that provided two tracks for LRT-1, 2 for MRT-3 and 2 for MRT-7. It required expensive structural steel box girders for the support system across EDSA due to traffic clearance requirements but provided the best configuration. Cost was P2.5B."

My source says he has no detailed info on the current DOTC concept, but it seems they are able to provide a much larger station at nominal increase in cost probably by including the MRT-7 Terminal Station into the common station package.

"Connecting walkway will be fairly long and seems to violate agreement between DOTC and MRT-7. Also, nobody has asked the owners of MRT-3 their agreement since they will build the common station on part of the MRT-3 rail track. Sobrepena will have a lot of fun with this issue!"

A source in the Sobrepena camp told me it is difficult to assess the Tugade brokered agreement because the contract and design drawings have not been shared with them. What is certain, the source said, is that the location is in the wrong place as it is not a seamless connection with the three rail lines. And commuters will have to suffer two to three more years.

"The only seamless connection possible, given the possibility that MRT Line 7 will actually be constructed, will be in front of SM City, where the enabling works such as foundations have already been constructed years ago. There, passengers coming from Line 7 along North Ave. can cross a platform to go to Line 1 or MRT-3.

"The current location as shown in the newspapers will only favor Ayala's Trinoma Mall as it will force commuters from Line 7 to pass through the future Trinoma Mall expansion (it will be built up to EDSA corner North Ave.) to be able to go to MRT-3 and eventually to Line 1 extension.

Sec. Tugade certainly has plenty of headaches. But I would advise him to stay below the public radar in the meantime and do his homework. The same applies to all his subordinates. The only time they should emerge in public is when they are ready to announce an honest to goodness roll out of projects with timelines and deadlines.

The old strategy of former DOTC Sec. Jun Abaya of using press releases in lieu of accomplishment does not work. I hope Tugade does not fall in the same trap. It raises public expectations that guarantee a drastic fall in confidence as the months pass by with no visible results.