Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star |January 5, 2015

True, the Metro Rail Transit-3 has never raised fares but even rolled them back twice since commencing in 2000. Still, unjustifiable is the government’s 50-percent fare hike starting yesterday. The lying, cheating, and stealing by transport officials should prompt President Noynoy Aquino to take a second look, this time from the commuters’ point of view.

Lie No. 1 foisted by transport department (DOTC) bosses is that the MRT-3’s private builder-owner wants the fare increase. P-Noy should dare his political appointees to show proof of it. The private MRT Corp. has many beefs with the DOTC. Foremost is Transport Sec. Joseph Emilio Abaya’s multibillion-peso contracting since 2012 of inept but influential maintenance firms. This has ruined the MRTC’s P20-billion railway that the DOTC merely is operating. Fare rate was never an issue for MRTC. In fact, government banks own 80 percent of MRTC shares. That’s why ten of the 15 board directors come from the Development and Land Banks of the Philippines (DBP/LBP). Finance Sec. Cesar Purisima nominates them there, for P-Noy’s signature. The DBP/LBP reportedly enjoy at least 12.75 percent yearly return-on-equity, big for any state bank these days. The problem with the DBP/LBP presence in MRT-3 is that the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas disapproves of it, and has directed the two banks to get out of the non-banking business. That’s why Abaya is pestering Congress for P54 billion for a supposed buyout – another scam so big it requires a separate column to expose.

Worsening the false pretense for the fare hike was the method. There was no public hearing whatsoever, unlike in raising jeepney, bus, or taxi rates. The DOTC simply said the increase was overdue for years, without detailing why it should be 50 percent and not just, say, 5 percent, or even as high as 500 percent, as computed by railway experts. “Ah basta,” Abaya sniffed, with the smugness of an ex-soldier unfit for civilian posting. He announced the hike during the Christmas holidays, so no one could get explanations. It was like the surprise Pearl Harbor attack near Christmas of 1941. Abaya’s sneakiness was like his return from a Tokyo transport confab in 2013, when he regaled the press with tales of Japan’s vaunted subway and bullet trains. It was all to cover up the fact that, of the ten-man Philippine delegation, six were Abayas, including his parents, brother, cousin, and nephew – all accorded courtesies of the port, embassy, and more. Because there was no public hearing of the fare raise, there is no guarantee that it would be used for the public good.

This leads to what is basically wrong with the MRT-3. That is, that the ruling Liberal Party, of which Abaya is acting president, has made it a source of dirty money. So much sleaze has been exposed at the railway that P-Noy can no longer wash his hands of culpability. Had such billion-peso corruption been prevented, there would be no need for the fare hike.

Abaya, U-Sec. Jose Perpetuo Lotilla, and then-MRT-3 general manager Al S. Vitangcol in Oct. 2012 suddenly had sacked the 12-year-long maintenance contractor. In the guise of “emergency purchase,” they negotiated behind closed doors instead of publicly bidding out the $1.15-million (P51.7 million) monthly fee. Hired was a two-month-old, undercapitalized company consisting of LP members and an uncle-in-law of Vitangcol. That company became too hot to handle, as its founders and Vitangcol were linked to a $30-million extortion try on Czech train maker Inekon. Abaya, Lotilla, and Vitangcol replaced it with another, for a higher P57.1 million a month. The new firm’s “authorized representative” was the same chairman of the previous one, LP-Pangasinan leader Marlo dela Cruz. This character is known to P-Noy and Mar Roxas, LP president-on-leave, former DOTC chief, and recruiter of Lotilla, Vitangcol, et al. Dela Cruz claims to have resigned from the new maintenance firm since last Aug., yet Lotilla addressed to him the notice of the firm’s year-long extension starting last Sept.

In exchange for the multibillion-peso contracts, both LP-controlled firms performed no real upkeep. They did not maintain the trains, tracks, power supply, signaling system, or station elevators and escalators. Thus, the frequent breakdowns and accidents from 2012 to last Jan. 1, three days before the unjust fare hike. They did not stockpile on basic railway parts. As of last report, tracks of the government-owned Light Rail Transit-2 illegally were being installed on the private-owned MRT-3 – without the owner MRTC’s consent.

Opinion ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: 1

In the end, liars, cheaters, and stealers are found out. Abaya will have to answer to the people two incongruities:

• One, if a fare increase was so necessary and overdue, then how come he never said so during the Congress hearings on his DOTC budget for 2015? The hearings dwelt on the state of the railways. Congress allotted P2 billion for MRT-3 repairs that the (LP-aligned) contractors should have done. It also gave P7 billion in un-programmed funds, meaning emergencies, subject to close scrutiny against misuse. Senators Francis Escudero and Sergio Osmeña III say the subsidies are sufficient to offset any fare hike.

• Two, did not MTR-Hong Kong, after a recent rigorous inspection, recommend the MRT-3’s shutdown for public safety reasons, until its full rehab? So why is Abaya so eager to continue running the unsafe railway, and even raise the fare before any product and service upgrade?

Perhaps the lure of money for politics – the 2016 general election is fast drawing near – is too tempting to think of public welfare and personal reputation.