Low-hanging fruits
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 26, 2016 - 9:00am

Improvements in the mass transportation sector will take years to complete, with certain projects going even beyond the term of the next president.

But Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, at the risk of overpromising, sees four low-hanging fruits that he can deliver to a frustrated public before the end of President Aquino’s six years in office.

One (he hopes) is the release of driver’s license cards and vehicle license plates (with complete sets of stickers) by May.

Another is the launch of a premium bus service at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, with 25 up to 42 buses to be operated by Air 21, which bagged the contract in August 2015. The logistics firm was owned by Bert Lina; he says he divested himself of his business interests upon his appointment as Customs commissioner in April last year.

The third is the expansion of the “point to point” premium bus service to include three more routes – from Alabang and Eastwood to Makati, and from Fairview to EDSA, with the current North EDSA to Makati route to be formalized.

And fourth is the procurement of three more Metro Rail Transit (MRT) trains, each with three light rail vehicles, which can accommodate an additional 400,000 passengers per day.

Beyond those projects, Abaya points out that the best that he can do is to lay the groundwork for other transport projects and programs so that the next team will have an easier time.

“I’m sure the next secretary will get to ground-break, ribbon-cut projects that we have laid down,” Abaya told STAR editorial staff and several columnists the other day. “They’re not easy projects to roll out.”

Abaya is as good-natured as when he was the junior aide-de-camp of Corazon Aquino during her presidency. He brought along with him 19 officials and staff of the Department of Transportation and Communications for a meeting with The STAR that he asked for, and listened patiently even when told that probably 70 percent of the public’s complaints about lousy government service involved the DOTC.

His undersecretary for operations and procurement, Edwin Lopez, left in a huff after commenting that STAR columnist Jarius Bondoc was putting words in Abaya’s mouth. I hope Jun Abaya gets more respect from his other subordinates. It looked like a walkout to us, although Lopez reportedly did not want it described that way and sent word that he had another meeting at the Maritime Industry Authority or MARINA.

Former Navy officer Jun Abaya, trained in Annapolis to handle stressful situations, has endured congressional needling and could handle media grilling better. He told us we could ask for another meeting with him any time we need more explanations.

He said he might even be open to staying on in government – after consulting his wife, kids and God – in case his party’s presidential candidate Mar Roxas wins in May. But Abaya said he would resign first to give the new president a free hand.

* * *

Our associate editor, Marichu Villanueva, did not make it to the meeting because she was returning to Manila from Donsol, Sorsogon, and her flight was delayed by nearly an hour at the Legazpi airport. Philippine Airlines was advised to stay put until congestion at the NAIA could ease.

Albay Gov. Joey Salceda lamented the 18-month delay in the operation of the Bicol International Airport in Daraga, Albay due, he said, to bidding problems in the DOTC. He sighed that immigration, Customs and quarantine teams are already in place, waiting for an airport.

Bicol International was not mentioned among the airports given priority for development by DOTC: the ones in Bacolod, Iloilo, Davao, Panglao town in Bohol, and Laguindingan in Misamis Oriental, which replaced Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro.

Critics have said Abaya, a former Cavite congressman, is out of his depth in the DOTC. He counters that he has racked up solid achievements since taking over the post in 2012.

Among these is the completion of the upgrading of the NAIA Terminal 1 by DMCI (of Rizal Park photobomber notoriety).

Another is the lifting of the European Union’s ban on Philippine carriers. This followed the upgrading of the country from Category 2 to 1 by the US Federal Aviation Administration.

A third accomplishment is that thousands of Filipino seafarers have escaped a ban by the European Maritime Safety Agency after substantial progress was made in the country’s compliance with the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. But there are still gaps that unless properly addressed could lead to a ban.

Those accomplishments have been cited by Malacañang in explaining why Abaya is co-terminus with P-Noy.

Asked if he thought the DOTC was too tough a cookie or if it was simply ungovernable, Abaya told us, “No, if your heart is in the right place, if your conscience is clear.”

He admitted though that the job “is a sacrifice” and government “is not the best operator.” And completing some of the DOTC projects before P-Noy steps down, Abaya told us, is “just humanly, physically, Godly impossible.”

The job becomes more difficult when the courts and, in the case of the DOTC, the Commission on Audit step in. A COA order, challenged by the DOTC before the Supreme Court, has prevented the release of vehicle license plates and completion of two million pieces in the Netherlands.

The Land Transportation Office has a backlog of 617,000 license plates and about 1.3 million driver’s license cards. Last Jan. 15, 11 shipping containers arrived with 630,000 license plates, according to LTO chief Roberto Cabrera. Abaya is hoping the items can be released by May.

The license plates and driver’s license cards are among the biggest sources of public frustration. I asked Cabrera what his family thought about his acceptance of his post. He said they told him, “Sira ulo mo (You’re insane).”

There are long-term plans for mass transportation, Abaya assured us, including the construction of a new airport on an island in Manila Bay. The island will be expanded through reclamation so the airport will occupy an initial 2,000 hectares with two runways, which can later be upgraded to three and even four.

Great plan, but as a colleague commented, such projects can become bogged down in feasibility studies in the DOTC, and we’ll just believe it when it happens.

In the meantime, we’ll wait for the delivery of simpler items, such as license plates and driver’s license cards.

ABAYA ACIRC AIRPORT ALABANG AND EASTWOOD ALBAY GOV BERT LINA BICOL INTERNATIONAL BICOL INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT DOTC JUN ABAYA LICENSE
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