By Ernie Reyes | | January 6, 2016

MANILA – Senator Grace Poe on Wednesday urged President Aquino to take over the post of Transportation and Communications Secretary Emilio Abaya after his agency's failure to deliver promised new trains and other equipment for the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) System.

The call to replace Abaya came as a multiawarded newspaper columnist revealed more instances of the DOTC's failure to address the mass transportation problem in the past, including an apparent junket Abaya took in late 2013 in the guise of observing Japan's subway system.

And, just before Christmas, there was the midnight award - sans public bidding - of a P3.8 billion maintenance contract with a consortium involving a South Korean firm and four Filipino entities that columnist Jarius Bondoc said had no proven expertise in commuter trains. The Korean has backed out, in the latest development, apparently for fear of being dragged in potential lawsuits with the Filipino entities.

Meanwhile, Poe described the situation in a statement as becoming critical, with the safety of the riding public in peril.

“With the seemingly nonchalant stance of the DOTC and MRT management, in not being upfront about this circumstance, I urge the good President to step in, take control of the DOTC and pull together all the needed government resources at its disposal to address the situation,” Poe said.

In Malacañang Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. of the Presidential Communications Operations Office told Palace reporters "the President has tasked the DOTC and other concerned agencies to address day-to-day problems faced by commuters in the NCR."

 Coloma gave assurances "additional transport infrastructure are also being built and planned to provide long-term solutions," and, without directly responding to the call to oust Abaya, added that the "performance of all Cabinet members is being assessed continually by the President as Chief Executive."

Midnight deal

Bondoc in his Philippine Star column said that Korea's Busan Transport Corporation, the new maintenance firm for MRT, has backed out and wanted to be a   a mere “technical advisor,” no longer the technology partner of the joint venture.

“The Department of Transportation and Communications is disallowing it, since only Busan has the knowhow,” Bondoc said.

Quoting reliable sources, he said heated discussions took place "from Monday afternoon well into the night, then resumed yesterday." Busan is reportedly worried about potential lawsuits that could drag it, "jointly and severally with the four partners, due to the irregularity of the P3.8-billion, three-year deal,” Bondoc said.

Bondoc said that Abaya had negotiated the deal behind closed doors instead of open bidding. “He claimed it was an emergency, although the funds are to come from the long-planned and -appropriated 2014 and 2015 national budgets.”

“He announced it on Christmas Eve, when the government was on vacation,” Bondoc said.

6 Abayas in DOTC team to Tokyo?

Another Philippine Star columnist, Boo Chanco, had obtained documents, according to Bondoc, that the 2013 APEC transport ministers’ meeting in Japan Abaya attended - after which he sought to replicate Tokyo's subway system - was, from all indications, said Bondoc, "a family junket.” The 10-man DOTC delegation that he led listed six Abayas: the Secretary, his Daddy, his Mommy, a brother, a cousin, and a nephew.

When Mr. Aquino took over the administration in 2010, the President promised to expand the MRT up to Marikina in the North and the Light Rail Transit Line 1 to two Cavite cities in the South.

However, according to the Philippine Star's Bondoc, the administration has done nothing since then because, among others, the current heads of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) shelved the proposal made by Metro Pacific Group after it bought out the Metro Rail Transit Corporation.

Bondoc wrote Wednesday (January 6) in his column "Gotcha", “the MRT-3 could have quadrupled by now, with more trains on new routes, had the Department of Transportation and Communications been receptive.”

He recalled that "in 2010 the Metro Pacific Group bought out the Metro Rail Transit Corp. (MRTC), private owner-builder of the railway, for $110 million. Its vision was to elongate the trains to four coaches each from the present three, with more frequent dispatches every two minutes. Tracks would be built onto Manila’s Port Area and international airport, and far into Cavite. It would connect with the LRT-1 and -2 in more crisscrosses than the present one each, and a soon-to-rise MRT-7 from Bulacan,” Bondoc said.

The vision then was that the metro would become the main means of rapid mass transport in Mega Manila. “Initial investment: $600 million, half of it to buy new coaches alone. In Phase 1, the coaches would double from the original 73 in 2000, to 156 by 2014.”

Bondoc recalled how the DOTC under then-Secretary Jose "Ping" de Jesus, a technocrat with a reputation as a most efficient action man in the first (Cory) Aquino presidency,  came alive. De Jesus was said to have had confidence the MPG's plan "would solve most of the government’s problems.”

Bondoc continued: “Foremost of these was rides and traffic. The past MRTC owner could no longer expand due to capital lack, and two government banks were tied up with stock shares against Bangko Sentral rules,” he said.

A memorandum was sent for President Benigno Aquino III to have the National Economic and Development Authority endorse the proposal for Swiss challenge, under the Build-Operate-Transfer law, Bondoc added. However, “Malacañang just sat on the plan,” he said.

Metro Pacific re-submitted it when Secretaries Mar Roxas and Joseph Abaya came in, but still there was no action; not even a response. "Subsequent Senate inquiries showed that the DOTC did not even bother to reply to the firm, in violation of law.”

Don’t wait for Abaya’s resignation - Poe

With this, Poe urged President Aquino to step in on the MRT woes instead of waiting for Abaya to resign.

“Five months is an eternity to our riding public," Poe said, referring to the period people must wait until a new president is elected and a new Cabinet installed. "We have endured more than three years of Abaya's incompetence and short- sightedness,” Poe said.

She reminded the administration that the safety of the riding public is of utmost importance and concern of the government.

“The reliability of public transportation should be a priority. Potential major problems are waiting to happen with MRT 3,” she said, noting these grim details: there is no more daily maintenance of train brakes and bogey wheels, daily inspection of tracks for cracks, daily testing of signaling as per SOP in any metro rail system, Poe said.