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Political will… daw!

It is probably just as well that Transport Secretary Art Tugade didn’t get his emergency powers from Congress. Now he has an excuse for having obligated only 18 percent of his 2017 budget with less than four months to go. Having obligated one’s budget, in bureaucratese, means wala pang nagawa... plano pa lang.

 I was very supportive of Tugade in the weeks before he assumed office because he did seem like someone with enough grit to move the transport department like never before. Thus far, he has only succeeded in moving DOTr offices to Clark… and not all at that.

 I had long conversations with Tugade at that time and he kept on talking about political will. He kept on saying that the Duterte administration has the political will to solve the traffic problem and implement the big ticket projects the previous administration didn’t have the guts to get going.

With 2017 practically over, only the Clark Airport which is being administered by BCDA is probably going to break ground. According to BCDA’s Vince Dizon, he is looking at Dec. 19 and 21 as the target date for groundbreaking but he said they will already start clearing activities and excavation.

There are now 12 bidders for the construction of Clark Airport on a turn-key basis. Bids will be opened on Oct. 28 and BCDA will award the project to the winning bidder on Nov. 28. Hopefully, there will be no more delays. Sometimes the bidders cause the delays.

Vince said they are also bidding out next month all the roads leading to the airport and the new Clark City. They already have detailed designs so full construction starts in January.

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Early this week, Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate committee on finance, lamented the continued underspending of several agencies, including DOTr. The senator said DOTr returned P11.5 billion to the National Treasury in December 2016.  And as of June 30, 2017, DOTr was only able to obligate, not even spend, 18 percent of its 2017 budget which will expire by the end of this year.

The thing is… DOTr has the bulk of the Duterte administration’s Build Build Build projects. I warned Budget Secretary Ben Diokno in one forum that he is dreaming. DOTr and other government infra agencies do not have the absorptive capacity to carry out the programs in his list.

But Ben was adamant. We will monitor progress, he promised, and those unable to perform will have to go, he said or words to that effect. The President, he said, will be merciless in exacting performance. This I have to see…

 I know Tugade is facing political headwinds and had to compromise with the Speaker on the bundled airports projects among others. If he didn’t unbundle those projects, he can now point out five domestic airports being modernized by the private sector. Now he has nothing to show… zero… nada!

Another zero and nada situation is MRT 3. Before he took office, one of the must do items in Tugade’s agenda is to get Sumitomo to take over maintenance of the rail system. It didn’t happen and over the last few weeks, hardly a day goes by without several glitches forcing MRT passengers to disembark.

I know… MRT 3’s problems were exacerbated by the indecision and corruption of the last administration. But if there is one project that demands strong political will, it is MRT 3. The most distasteful of the steps that must be taken is negotiating with the owner of the system.

Talking to Robert Sobrepeña who heads MRT Holdings has become even more necessary now. I understand that he has led the original owners of MRTC in taking back the MRTC Board from the GFIs.

The Sobrepeña group had been pushing DOTr to allow them to fix MRT 3 and to upgrade it (with Sumitomo), as provided in the contract.  But DOTr has been largely ignoring these offers and proposals, they complain.

I can understand the hesitance of DOTr to let the Sobrepeña group to rehab MRT 3 because that prolongs their presence. This is politically unpalatable due to the very bad experience with Sobrepeña here, College Assurance Plan, Camp John Hay and FilEstate. But they should talk to at least negotiate a quick exit.

Apparently, the cause for action in the Singapore arbitration case filed by MRTC vs DOTC in 2009 had been cured because DOTC started paying the equity rental payments again (most went to GFIs who held economic interest). The Sobrepeña group told me they have been pushing for the case they filed to be withdrawn.  

They are surprised that the GFI representatives who were then on the MRTC Board refused to withdraw the case.  Instead, a week before former DOTC Secretary Abaya stepped down, DOTC filed a counter claim. Government is claiming the MRT 3 is now breaking down continuously because it was never completed.  

When the Sobrepeña group tried to negotiate with the current DOTr to withdraw this Singapore arbitration case, DOTr wrote them that they want to pursue this counter claim.  I suppose that means seeing a truly functioning MRT 3 will be further delayed as lawyers argue.  

The Sobrepeña group had a deal with Metro Pacific on MRT 3. But the deal is apparently off. When I asked about Metro Pac, they replied that “any other third party trying to do unsolicited proposals is not only illegal but will certainly delay the process to bring real and lasting repair and or upgrade to this vital transportation system. It only serves to confuse and cause further inaction on the MRT3.”

Of course we all know that the Chinese trains ordered by Abaya have been found defective and cannot be used by MRT 3. We wasted P3.8 billion on unusable trains. The rare time that Abaya was decisive, mali pa.

There is no denying that the job Tugade inherited from Abaya is a horrible one. That is why political will is necessary to cut the Gordian knot in the MRT 3 situation. It also requires thinking out of the box. As a self made billionaire, I thought Tugade had those skills.

 One other major project that needs strong political will is the connector road project from NLEX to SLEX. Once completed, it is supposed to absorb as much as 50 per cent of EDSA traffic.  It is supposed to be completed next year but is now indefinitely delayed due to right of way issues. Here are specifics:

 1. For section 1 from Buendia to Quirino - ROW is yet to be secured over property owned by Sincere Lumber Corp. TRB and DPWH still negotiating.

 2. For section 2 from Plaza Dilao to SM Centerpoint, nothing is happening on ROW negotiations between government and affected private land owners. There is a pending San Juan River realignment proposal with DPWH to hasten the construction in this particular section to avoid ROW problems and meet completion targets. DPWH Sec Mark Villar can’t seem to make the decision to allow the diversion even as he also can’t deliver the ROW.

3. For section 3 from Aurora Blvd to Balintawak - ROW issues include various residential and commercial properties plus those of NGCP and Meralco. Tugade has to get Villar to act faster so this extremely vital project can be completed sooner.

 Tugade seems to be concentrating more on PR than actually groundbreaking projects. That isn’t going to work. Sen Legarda already exposed him for underperforming, if the non use of his budget is an indication.  

Speaking of Mark Villar, he talks of 6 new bridges across the Pasig River but nothing is happening with even one. Build Build Build is more like Talk Talk Talk. Political will is just a propaganda ploy. Unless they are able to catch up soon, Build Build Build is dead.  

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

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