By Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star | September 11, 2015

Defying Congress calls for openness, transport officials continued this week secret contracting for a P4.25-billion rehab of the MRT-3 commuter rail.

 Transport Sec. Joseph Abaya also figured in two more storms over Metro Manila’s railways. He was caught contriving a P7.5-billion reimbursement to the LRT-1 extension contractor who wasn’t even asking for it. And the MRT-3 prototype coach he has been bragging about finally arrived from China – but would not run because engineless.

Subalterns representing Abaya at Monday’s House of Reps hearing refused to divulge what companies they were talking with for the MRT-3. U-Sec. Jose Perpetuo Lotilla and Director Renato San Jose invoked the Government Procurement Reform Act of 2004 for their secrecy.

This drew jeers from congressmen and other attendees of the committee on Metro Manila development, chaired by Rep. Winston Castelo (Quezon City). Lawyers among them pointed out that the law was passed precisely to make government contracting more transparent. Party-list Reps. Jonathan dela Cruz (Abakada) and Terry Ridon (Kabataan) called for a new hearing exclusively on the validity of the closed-door negotiating.

Echoing Abaya’s earlier justifications, Lotilla said the negotiations came about due to the emergency nature of the rehab and the failure of two public biddings for the P2.27-billion maintenance.

Dela Cruz pooh-poohed the alibis. He said the multiyear duration of the rehab components belies the emergency situation. The maintenance of the railway and the overhaul of 43 coaches are for three years, while the replacement of the signaling system is for two years. Besides, dela Cruz said, Congress had approved and budgeted the works as far back as 2014 and early 2015.

Dela Cruz added that the two failed biddings were only for the three-year P2.27-billion maintenance. The law allows consequent negotiations, but only under the same terms of reference. The P4.25-billion rehab, of which the maintenance became only one of four components, is under a totally new TOR.

Ridon suspects the P4.25 billion will be awarded to a consortium brokered by Abaya’s Liberal Party mate Marlo dela Cruz (not related to the congressman). As LP acting president, Abaya is raising campaign funds for the 2016 general election. He has awarded billions to unqualified yet well-connected companies represented by Marlo dela Cruz. (Incidentally, certain DOTC contractors have been pressuring this writer to stop mentioning Marlo dela Cruz. They may want to coerce the Leftist congressman instead.)

Congressman dela Cruz said Abaya and Lotilla were trying to fool Congress even about their attendance. He quoted Lotilla as saying Abaya was absent from the House because he had to attend a simultaneous Senate hearing on Metro Manila’s traffic crisis. It turned out that he snubbed the Senate as well.

Senators Grace Poe and Nancy Binay that Monday also visited the MRT-3 depot in Quezon City to inspect the prototype coach delivered by China’s Dalian Corp. After which, they emphasized the need for Abaya to be candid about the parties he was negotiating with. Their plea apparently was unheeded.

Significantly, the prototype coach, because engineless, had not been tested for 5,000 kilometers. This is in breach of the 2003 supply contract for 54 brand new coaches. Rep. Edgardo Erice (LP) at first said the 5,000-km test run can be done in Manila, until a colleague pointed out the contract proviso that it should have been tested before delivery.

In a separate venue Abaya said the traction motors ordered from Germany will be installed by Oct., and three prototypes would be running by Jan. 2016.

A railway engineer doubted how the three prototypes could be ready by then, if the test runs are done on MRT-3 tracks. Drawing a rough time-and-motion, he told The STAR that the MRT-3 tracks are only 16 km long, 32 if round trip. “How many hours will they do it every night, when the regular trains are off, to complete the 5,000 km?” he explained. “It cannot be the whole night, because after every 150 km they have to test the bogies (wheels), signaling system, electronic connectors, and electrical parts.”

The tests could imperil night motorists along busy Epifanio delos Santos Avenue below the MRT-3, as the prototypes should run up to 65 kph. The dilapidated tracks could give way, the engineer said, if the time that should be spent inspecting them are used up on the test runs. The coaches could derail and fall off the elevated tracks onto cars below.

Meanwhile, the Light Rail Manila Corp. (LRMC), contractor of the 11-km LRT-1 extension denied that it was collecting P7.5 billion in damages and penalties from the DOTC. Manuel V. Pangilinan, chairman of Metro Pacific Investments that owns 55 percent of LRMC, said they have yet to take over the railways, so have no reason to collect anything. LRMC’s other shareholders are the Ayala Group, 35 percent, and an Australian rail company, 10 percent.

In a separate interview with another newspaper, President Noynoy Aquino said he has been informed of the consortium’s collection of P7.5-billion damages and penalties, but that it still is subject to arbitration. Finance Sec. Cesar Purisima was quoted in the same report as emphasizing the need to abide by the contract provisos on damages and penalties in case the government fails to deliver its commitments, such as rights-of-way, and seismic and fire safety.

Asked about the conflicting statements, a Malacañang technical consultant pointed to Abaya as the culprit. “Mr. Pangilinan and the President both are telling the truth,” the insider said. “The former truly is not asking for anything, but Abaya (falsely) has told the latter that the LRMC is demanding payment.”

A DOTC source also confirmed that Abaya had written Budget Sec. Florencio Abad last month to release the P7.5 billion. This puts in question what Abaya is up to, the Malacañang consultant said.

The militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan had exposed last week Abaya’s intended P7.5-billion recompense. The group’s head Renato Reyes denounced the scheme as an unconstitutional sovereign guarantee.

Interviewed simultaneously with Reyes over Ted Failon’s top-rating radio-TV morning talk show, Abaya stumbled in explaining the letter to Abad. When told that Reyes’ copy of the letter was unsigned and the barcode was blotted out, he hammered on that point. Pressed by Failon if it was intent nonetheless to pay the P7.25 billion, Abaya mumbled something about having to consult his staff first.

Like the P4.25-billion MRT-3 rehab, Abaya has kept the P7.5-billion reimbursement from the public websites.