Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star | November 24, 2017

Cesar Chavez, the man who was holding the MRT-3 fort together, has quit. Being blamed for others' faults became unbearable. Chavez had struggled every pre-dawn to late night to keep Mega Manila’s main yet most rotted commuter railway running. That wasn’t his job but the MRT-3’s allegedly absentee general manager's. Still he did it, to ensure rides for 450,000 daily passengers. From inside, meanwhile, he was being sabotaged to fail. Last week a train decoupled while accelerating, which can only happen by fiddling with the electronic-electrical mechanism. That weekend the emergency technicians on whom Chavez relied nearly weren’t paid their salaries. Deliberately it seemed too, the MRT-3 regular staff was being demoralized from good work. Higher-ups didn't shield Chavez from lobbyist-intriguers of unqualified contractors. Fed up, he gave up yesterday. Decently he kept mum about those real causes, and took responsibility for the mess. But the murmurs from inside were too loud to ignore.

Transport Sec. Arthur Tugade may say that no one's indispensable. Chavez himself said his resignation could usher in someone more able. Still, it all comes at a bad time. The Christmas rush is on. Goods have been coming in increasing shipments to the Manila sea and airports, necessitating a concomitant increase in cargo trucks. Holiday shoppers and home-comers are cramming the streets. Metropolitan authorities are unable to cope with the usual, so what more holiday, traffic. Hours-long gridlocks loom. Traditionally oppositionist Metro Manilans will seethe. President Rodrigo Duterte will be blamed.

Duterte characteristically is a take-charge guy. It was he no less who publicly apologized last weekend for the MRT-3 train decoupling and daily glitches. Tugade was then in sickbay. Yesterday Tugade denied critics’ insinuations of causing Chavez’s sudden departure. They've lost a good man in Chavez. The latter, by being transparent in inviting consumerists, politicians, and newsmen to monitor railways contracting, had restored public confidence in the transport department. How will Duterte and Tugade now make the MRT-3 GM, a sickly retiree-general from Davao, work? Whom would they pick as new honest deputy for rail mega-projects?

Chavez's shoes are too big to fill. As 13-month-long Undersecretary for Railways he got trains moving from three administrations of dilapidation. The Philippine National Railways resumed daily Manila-Laguna commuter runs. Continuing it to Legaspi and onto Sorsogon in Bicol is to start soon. As well, the North Rail from Manila to Malolos, Bulacan, onto Clark Airport in Pampanga. In the works too is the first leg, Cagayan de Oro-Iligan, of a Mindanao circumferential railroad. In Metro Manila, the LRT-1 is being extended to the boundary of Cavite; LRT-2 coaches are to be refurbished.

MRT-3 will be the trickiest to handle. Chavez's undersecretary job is basically policy staff work. But he had to take over operations and maintenance when his boss fired the private contractor for unfulfilled work. Two Cabinet members, a powerful lawyer, and a congressman are lobbying to restore that inept company to its plunderous P3.8-billion contract. Other retired generals are angling to insert equally inept contractors. If they have their way, Duterte will reap the whirlwind. The past Aquino admin had incurred Mega Manilans’ wrath for the series of billion-peso MRT-3 contracts to Liberal Party mates. Duterte must not repeat the mistake.