DOTr flees Metro Manila

- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - July 30, 2017 - 4:00pm

Even before he took over DOTr, Secretary Art Tugade had repeatedly talked about decongesting Metro Manila. He will set the ball rolling by moving DOTr to Clark. I think he was starting to miss Clark, his home over the last few years when he headed Clark Development Corp. during the Aquino administration.

It didn’t help that Tugade was named the Traffic Czar or the senior Duterte official responsible for untangling Metro Manila’s hopeless traffic jams. He boasted about having political will to solve problems. But when he sought emergency powers, the President’s allies in Congress denied him that. The impossibility of the mission must have made him yearn for the peace and quiet of the former American military base.

In those early days before the new administration took over, we endlessly discussed how to bring relief to Metro Manila commuters. We kept on going back to the conclusion that it was just too crowded and government must clearly deliver the message that the policy is to move new investments away to new growth centers, like Clark.

We talked about all those call centers and why it will be better for the operators and the call center agents to be outside Metro Manila. So we talked about proposing to the Board of Investments and the Department of Finance to revise incentives and give disincentives to make call centers move out of Manila.

Sec. Tugade warmed up to the idea, but insisted government must set the example. Noting that the current office of DOTr is in traffic congested Ortigas Avenue across La Salle, the Secretary figured there is more urgency to the idea of moving out to Clark.

Besides, he said, there is no real reason for them to be in Manila. Some employees may be displaced, but the civil service is big and there could be ways of moving people around. By showing the move to Clark works, Tugade is hoping other departments and offices, including even the office of the President, can follow. Malacañang Palace, as we know it now, may become just a museum.

In a briefing BCDA president Vince Dizon gave the Foundation for Economic Freedom early this month, he showed us plans for such a government center in Clark. It will be our Putrajaya, he said, referring to the planned city that is the federal administrative center of Malaysia about 36 kilometers outside Kuala Lumpur.

BCDA is now hot at work developing a brand new city within Clark. We saw some studies and plans and everything seems impressive. The past administration called it Clark Green City and it will be everything Metro Manila is not. Careful environmental planning and adequate infrastructure will be in place. It could be just the thing we need to be competitive in the new digital age.

I had been skeptical then and I remain skeptical now. Government plans always look good on paper, but they buckle in the implementation. I understand renowned Filipino architect and environmental planner Jun Palafox is working on the Master Development Plan of Clark.

Jun has planned new cities in the Middle East from out of nothing but sand dunes. But the Middle Eastern countries have oil wealth to finance such dreams, as did Malaysia when they did Putrajaya. All we have is initial enthusiasm that’s easily extinguished by government’s habitual failure to execute well.

The other good reason Tugade has for moving to Clark is to provide close personal attention to big infra projects to alleviate the choking infrastructure inadequacy of Metro Manila. Two of these are the Clark International Airport and the Clark to NAIA fast train.

I imagine Tugade is thinking of making Clark the major international gateway airport. This is why he cancelled a NEDA approved privatization project that called for allowing the private sector to modernize and expand NAIA’s facilities as well as to handle operations and maintenance. He also seems lukewarm to PAL’s offer to expand Terminal 2 at no cost to government.

Right now, Tugade is talking of a two airport strategy, Clark and NAIA existing side by side like Haneda and Narita. The way it looks, the unsolicited proposals to build brand new airports in Sangley and Bulacan are dead in the water because of time constraints.

Tugade wants to deliver modern gateways before the end of Duterte’s term. There are also environmental concerns regarding reclamation which already led to the cancellation of a port project in Davao.

They dusted off a completed study made by French consultants to build a new terminal at Clark. They said they would use funds from the national budget to make Clark’s development happen quickly. They declined unsolicited proposals from Megawide/GMR and Filinvest/JG Summit to undertake Clark’s development at no cost to the government.

I heard they are trying to entice China to finance the project as ODA. Aside from the terminal building, they need a new runway since the distance between the current runway and the second runway left by the Americans is designed for fighter jets and not compliant with standards to handle the big commercial jets.

Tugade is also said to favor Filinvest/JG Summit to eventually take on O and M of the new modernized Clark International Airport. He had experience working with Filinvest when he was head of Clark Development and the Gokongweis are close to Duterte who even tried to appoint Lance as finance secretary.

As for the fast train, Tugade may be promising more than he can deliver. While the segment from Tutuban to Malolos left by the Chinese contractor has no right of way issues, the segment from Malolos to Clark is problematic. There are squatters along the right of way who are expected to put up a fight to stop their displacement.

Tugade conducted a publicity stunt of a ceremony supposedly to install station markers for the North Rail, as if construction will happen soon. But even with the Tutuban to Malolos segment, a big delay should be expected because it still doesn’t have a detailed engineering design.

That’s because Tugade changed the terms of reference from narrow gauge rails to standard gauge. The Japanese government was not happy with the shift because they already completed the detailed engineering for the Tutuban-Malolos section. It took two years for the Abaya team to decide on that issue and they chose narrow gauge. The change will also cost us millions of dollars more in construction.

Tugade promised completion of the Tutuban to Clark rail by 2020. But with Tugade’s change order, the Japanese consultant must go back to the drawing board. The original timetable – without the changes – had a target completion date of 2021 based on the JICA feasibility report with its implementation timeline. Tugade seems to be promising more than he can deliver.

The Malolos to Clark segment still has no detailed engineering and squatter relocation has yet to happen. And the Tutuban to Malolos cannot be opened for public bidding until the detailed engineering design is done.

Well, it seems Tugade is running away from his original major mandate to deal with Metro Manila traffic. General Danny Lim of MMDA will now take the blame as Tugade exits to Clark, far away from demonstrators, congressmen and pesky journalists. Like Mar Roxas before him, he could very well be thumbing his nose to Metro Manila’s traffic sufferers, bahala na kayo sa buhay nyo.

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

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