FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 8, 2016 - 9:00am

There is a scourge plaguing the nation’s transport systems. His name is Joseph Emilio Aguinaldo Abaya.

Recently the most inaccessible of Cabinet secretaries, he heads up the DOTC. He was installed there by his political patron Mar Roxas, his immediate predecessor. It is said all major policy decisions in that department still goes through Roxas. That makes Abaya a Roxas dummy – although the secretary will surely not acknowledge the charge.

Following the Roxas precedent, Abaya centralized in his office the procurement contracts entered into by all the myriad agencies attached to the DOTC. Lately, and this is rather odd, Abaya has not been signing the contracts himself even as he firmly controls their negotiation. His undersecretaries perform the vulnerable ritual of signing the contracts for the department.

By the way, Abaya is also president of the ruling Liberal Party (apart from being grandson of a disputed national hero). His only qualification for the top party post appears to be his willingness to be Roxas’ flunkey. In many instances, it is not clear if, in the decisions made by the agency he heads, national interest prevails over party interest.

It is also not clear how much mayhem Abaya has to create to be removed from his post.

Earlier this week, Sen. Grace Poe asked the President to remove Abaya from his post – in the public interest. That will not happen, apparently.

Last Thursday, according to reports, Abaya was summoned to the Palace. It was never announced what was talked about. But it was made clear Abaya stays. All the LP mouthpieces rose in chorus, defending their party leader. It is like rubbing salt on the open wounds of all metro commuters.

Yesterday, service was again interrupted at the MRT-3 line. That is no longer news. It happens with regularity. It infuriates commuters no end.

Whenever trains service stops, passengers spill onto the streets to try and find rides to work. Buses are overloaded. Traffic flow is screwed.

Even when the trains are running, there are not enough of them to carry all the commuters. Studies show we need to increase frequency of the trains to one every two minutes during rush hours. That will not happen for a while.

The DOTC ordered new trains from Dalian, China. We expected they would be arriving in a continuous stream last year. Only one has been delivered and it could not be tested because the thing has no motor and no signaling system.

Last month, during the holiday break, the DOTC signed a maintenance contract with a strange consortium involving South Korean firm Busan Motors and four unknown local companies previously engaged in plumbing, construction supplies and agricultural equipment.

Although Busan has the financial muscle and, apparently some expertise, the company owns only 4% of the consortium. Earlier this week, it was reported that Busan wanted out of the deal, wanting none of the legal complications this might involve. The Koreans merely wanted to be technical consultants to the undertaking.

By the end of the week, the DOTC held a formal signing of the contract. Someone must have twisted Busan’s arm.

The formal signing does not mean the contract will not be assailed in court. Much less does it mean service at the MRT-3 will be flawless from hereon.

Last December 21, a couple of days before the DOTC announced the award of the P3.81 billion contract to the Busan consortium, the Metro Rail Transit Corporation (MRTC) wrote an urgent letter to Abaya opposing such an award. The letter was obviously ignored by the DOTC.

The MRTC owns the MRT-3 line even as the DOTC operates it. The corporation deserves to be consulted on the procurement of assets maintenance services for the service.

Since the two government banks (DBP and LBP) bought up the MRT bonds from the open market, the MRTC board came under the control of government representatives. Apart from the directors appointed by the banks (who control the economic interest), a representative from the Department of Finance also sits on the board.

In the December 21 letter, MRTC Chairman Tomas de Leon Jr. reiterated that under the BLT Agreement covering the MRT-3, technical maintenance of the system is a legal right and obligation given MRTC as owner of the facility.  The MRTC has a vested interest to ensure the facility is efficiently maintained by a technically qualified and financially capable service provider.

The MRTC expressed its “strong reservations and doubts on the legality” on the “negotiated contract” the DOTC entered with Busan Transport. MRTC believes the contract does not pass the standards of the Government Procurement Reform Act, especially the clearly defined nature of “emergency procurement.”

Nor, says the MRTC, does the general overhauling of the light rail vehicles be considered an emergency since this should be part of scheduled maintenance. MRTC also questions why, in the Busan deal, the DOTC included the procurement of the signaling system. A supplemental appropriation for the same was available since December 2014.

The MRTC letter is strongly worded, concluding that “there is no legal basis to support DOTC’s proposed negotiated procurement.” It ends reiterating the corporation’s right to maintain the MRT-3 system.

In all practicality, the MRTC is a government agency, having been under the control of the two government banks. Yet it effectively denounces the DOTC deal with Busan. Following the tone of that letter, the two banks must now file suit to declare the deal illegal.

Meanwhile, President Aquino announced in Davao yesterday that Abaya will remain at his post. That can only mean the scourge continues.


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