Boo Chanco | Philstar| January 24, 2017

Transportation Secretary Art Tugade has had six months to familiarize himself with the problems left over by his predecessor, former DOTC Secretary Jun Abaya. Those were big and contentious problems that I never believed Sec. Jun intended to solve.

I had a long conversation with Mr. Tugade weeks before he assumed office. He was raring to go and address those left over problems. He had solutions in mind. And best of all, he said the Duterte administration has the political will to solve those problems. Watch me, he said.

We are three weeks into the new year and just before the Christmas break, I met with Sec. Art and the weight of his problems was beginning to show. He looked tired and sounded frustrated. But he was still confident he could deliver as promised.

There were news reports during the holiday break that Malacanang appointed people to head agencies under him whose reputations don't give us reason to hope for competence and good governance. I guess Tugade must live with those political appointments.

But from where I am, I can foresee problems ahead. The political appointments will eventually cause Tugade to fail. For sure, his delivery of projects will be delayed.

A news report has it that one of the appointees wants to take back ownership and control of LRT1/MRT3 from the private sector. I am not surprised.

But that means taking back the PPP contract with the MPIC/Ayala consortium and I don't think the Duterte administration should do that. That will kill the administration's credibility and its ambitious infrastructure program which heavily depends on private sector funding and support.

Even without the political appointments, Sec Tugade already has plenty of headaches. A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend posted a picture of the LRT2 extension superstructure on Marcos Highway looking almost completed. But my friend lamented, "they have not started work on the stations."

Those who have been inconvenienced by the construction these past months are horrified by the thought that their sufferings aren't over. They will suffer horrendous traffic jams again once DOTr starts work on the stations.

What happened here? If Jun Abaya was worth his engineering diploma, he would have made sure that work on the superstructure was done simultaneously with the work on the stations. Without the stations and other requirements (trackworks, electro-mechanical), the completed superstructure is nothing but a useless monument to government stupidity.

It gets worse. My expert source informed me the problem happened because Abaya split the project execution in many ways.

My dirty mind tells me that chopping the contracts will make it possible for their friends from the Liberal Party to get in. It was election fund raising time and Abaya was LP president.

How was the project chop chopped? First, they awarded the preparation of detailed engineering design works to a Korean company.

My knowledgeable source told me that if one is guided by public interest, a design-build contract would have been faster and cheaper. They should know that already after the good experience on the LRT1 extension to Trinoma from Balintawak. Then too, the same specs for the existing LRT2 civil works would apply. What’s to re-design?

Second, during project execution, they unbundled the: 1) two stations from the civil works construction, 2) the trackworks, 3) power system and catenary, 4) signaling.

In the dying days of the Aquino administration, the Abaya boys had a failed bidding on the stations. A rebidding of the stations was conducted by the current DOTr. DMCI was the lone bidder and got the award late last year, but has yet to get a notice to proceed.

The ancillary works – trackworks, electro-mechanical (EMT) they plan to bid out at the earliest next month. That means the project completion will be really delayed.

We are only talking of a four kilometer extension. But between Mar Roxas and Abaya, they wasted five years already. And the wait isn't over under Tugade.

They are blaming JICA's Japanese content requirement for the delay. But such requirement had been known from the start. It has to be sheer incompetence on the part of Abaya's DOTC/LRTA to have missed that.

Even under Tugade's watch, the LRTA staff took time to figure out what to do. This is one reason why I feel we cannot put too much hope on the current administration’s ability to deliver on its ambitious infra promises. There is no sense of urgency in the bureaucracy and even someone like Tugade can only end up being frustrated.

So, even if DMCI is able to complete the stations soon enough, there will still be no commercial operation of the LRT 2 extension – without the other elements, especially trackworks and power system.

Bottom line on LRT2 extension: the simple four kilometer extension will not be ready to operate any time soon. I hope Sec Tugade will move heaven and earth to complete it before the year is over. It is, after all, just January.

Then there is the PNR North Line which was started by an inexperienced Chinese company and is apparently being taken over by the Japanese. P-Noy has signed a loan agreement with Japan for the Tutuban- Malolos line.

Last I heard, Sec. Tugade wanted some changes, like to shift to standard gauge, as it should be. Tugade is also against the plan of the Japanese consultant to tear down some 60 support structures already completed by the Chinese unless there is proof of problems with structural integrity. That also makes sense.

Tugade must also review the costs. I understand the Japanese proposal is expensive because it incorporates a lot of unnecessary bells and whistles. Two things that raised the cost considerably: 1) elevated viaduct structure for almost the entire stretch; 2) use of DC (1.5kva) instead of AC (25kva) electrification.

My source thinks 25kva is more economical for long rail lines. This one is 34-km long (Tutuban to Malolos). No economic analysis was done to justify the more expensive option proposed by the Japanese consultant.

My source estimates that based on the Japanese consultant's timeframe, 2022 is the earliest they can really work on it. But that means delivery is beyond Duterte's term. The Japanese contractors supposedly have their hands full - at the moment – on Olympic preparation.

We should probably study what happened to a railway line Japan was supposed to build for Indonesia, but was later given to the Chinese. Indonesia, initially wanted a high-speed service for the 150-km Jakarta to Bandung rail line, but later opted for a medium-speed train. We should check how the costs compare.

A back-of-envelop computation is troubling. The Japanese loan offer for our North Rail project at $2 billion divided by 34-kilometers comes up to $60 million/km. of rail line. The Chinese project for Indonesia at $5 billion divided by 145 kilometers comes to around $35 million/km.

Of course China had its chance to do our north line, but flubbed it because of incompetence and corruption. Still, China should be given an opportunity to make a fresh offer, something to compare the Japanese offer with. We have waited long enough to do this north line. Let us make sure we do it right.

One other consideration is that the current Japanese offer only brings the line from Tutuban to Malolos. What we really urgently need more than that is a line that connects Clark to Makati/Bonifacio/NAIA for us to fully benefit from a two airport gateway concept.

If the Japanese gets to build the one to Malolos using the PNR right of way, where will we get the right of way for the Clark to Makati/Bonifacio/NAIA fast train that we could get China to build for us?

There are more left over problems from the Abaya era in DOTC that the current DOTr Secretary Tugade must address. We will tackle those in future columns.

In the meantime, we are closely watching how Sec. Tugade decides these two leftover problems. His leadership will be tested in the next three months. He has promised to make decisions to roll out projects by the end of the first quarter. Let us see if that happens.