Trains at ‘daang matuwid’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 - The Philippine Star

The first time I heard about government plans to build Metro Rail Transit-7 was around early 1998, or a few months before President Fidel Ramos stepped down from office at Malacañang. That early on, the proposed building of MRT-7 was being studied at the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).

Still under construction then was the MRT-3. It was finally completed a few months into office of former President Joseph Estrada. We were among the first riders of MRT-3 when we joined the inaugural run on July 15, 2000 with ex-President Estrada and Ramos together with MRT Holdings (MRTH) president and chairman Robert John Sobrepeña.

The 16.9-kilometer MRT 3 runs through 13 stations from North Triangle in Quezon City to Edsa Taft in Pasay City. For many years, the MRT-3 has become a popular choice of commuters avoiding traffic in EDSA until these last few years when train and track glitches stalled them more often than not.

At that time, however, we had the first overhead rail system in Metro Manila called the Light Rail Transit (LRT-1) running from Baclaran to SM North in Quezon City. It was one of the legacy infrastructure built during the last few years in power of the ousted late President Ferdinand Marcos.

Later on, LRT-2 was put up by the Ramos administration and started to run since 1996 traversing Recto Avenue to Santolan in Pasig City.     

Fast forward. The proposed construction of MRT-7 finally took off with the ceremonial groundbreaking last Wednesday in its main terminal site at Children’s Garden of the Quezon Memorial Circle in QC. The groundbreaking rites were supposed to signal the start of construction for the 23-kilometer MRT-7 that will run from North Avenue in QC all the way to San Jose del Monte in Bulacan. 

No less than outgoing President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III led the ceremonies for MRT-7 with San Miguel Corp.(SMC) president Ramon Ang who heads the country’s biggest conglomerate that would undertake the P63.9-billion project.

Also at hand during the groundbreaking were controversial Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.

In his speech, President Aquino said the MRT-7 would be completed by 2020. Ang assured him the project could be rushed to “as early as 2019.” The outgoing Chief Executive defended the delay of the project, citing the need for the government to carefully study if it would be “beneficial.”

That’s how very studious this administration has been through the years. Many other projects under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) program of the Aquino administration still remain in the pipeline.

While MRT-7 already had its ceremonial groundbreaking, where is the MRT-4? MRT-5? MRT-6?

As I gathered from our DOTC reporter, the proposed P43-billion LRT 4 (not MRT-4) project would cover a proposed 11-kilometer rail line running west from SM City in Taytay to the intersection of Ortigas Avenue and EDSA. On the other hand, the P65.09-billion MRT-6 covers the construction of a proposed rail line which will link to the terminus of the LRT Line 1 Cavite extension at Niyog in Bacoor and run up to Dasmariñas City. As for MRT-5, who knows?

While the MRT-7 groundbreaking rites were taking place, we had Sobrepeña as guest in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay. The MRTH chief welcomed the news about the MRT-7 finally taking off after a long while being stuck at the planning table. Sobrepeña could only wish the best of luck for the SMC in the implementation of the project based on the MRT-3 contract they had with the government.

The MRT-7 is a 35-year concession contract that will be undertaken by SMC’s infrastructure subsidiary, San Miguel Holdings Inc.

The MRT-3, on the other hand, was a 25-year Build-Lease-Transfer (BLT) contract with the government, Sobrepeña disclosed. Sobrepeña recalled how they at the MRTH successfully ran and operated the MRT-3, with 18 to 20 trains running on time. The MRT-3 even reached a ridership of as much as 550,000 to 600 passengers per day at its peak and with no breakdown or system glitches, he stressed. 

After eleven years, he said, the MRTH was able to pay back all its obligations to banks and other financial institutions that bankrolled the project. This was in line, Sobrepeña said, with the MRTH corporate policy to give priority to payment of loans.

Unfortunately, he rued, that is not the way policies are observed in the Philippine government, especially whenever there is a change of administration.

At the Kapihan sa Manila Bay, Sobrepeña discussed at length how the MRT-3 services deteriorated through the past four years after the administration of President Aquino decided to take over its operations, including maintenance since 2012. Incidentally, Sobrepeña noted the MRT-3 passenger woes from long queues to system glitches causing suspension of operations also started after the government, through the DOTC, took over.

According to Sobrepeña, troubles of MRT-3 started when then DOTC Secretary Mar Roxas II repeatedly ignored MRTH letters and communications seeking, among other things, to upgrade and undertake preventive maintenance of MRT-3 tracks and coaches.

He blamed the outgoing Aquino administration for cutting him off as one of its original owners under the BLT contract entered into in 1992 during the administration of President Aquino’s late mother, ex-President Corazon Aquino. The MRTH’s BLT contract with the government is supposed to be up to 2025, he cited.

Meanwhile, Sobrepeña is wary over the reported test-runs of the new MRT coaches procured from China. He warned against the safety and soundness of such new coaches that did not follow the same protocols they did at the MRTH before they launched commercial operations of MRT-3.

While this new project is taking place at the point of transition of government with the next administration taking over on June 30, Sobrepeña hopes the MRT-7 would not suffer the same fate as the MRT-3 under the “daang matuwid” of President Aquino. “Hopefully, the new government follows tamang daan instead,” he quipped.

In the meantime, passengers will continue to grin and bear it while LRT-1,LRT-2, and MRT-3 continue to bog down in the last 69 days of this “daang matuwid” administration.


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