Faulty planning bloated cost of subway – senators, experts
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - November 22, 2019 - 12:00am

Haphazardness is pushing up the cost of the Metro Manila subway – to the point of infeasibility. Construction estimates, raised so far from P208 billion to P218 billion then P357 billion, continue to jump. Cause: sudden changes in site selection, engineering methods, and alignment.

A major deviation is the partial opening of three of 15 stations by 2022, before the end of President Rody Duterte’s term. That can imply accomplishment. But it will bloat costs for tunneling, earthmoving, concrete walling, and site acquisition, among others.

The three stations are on Quirino Highway, Tandang Sora, and North Avenue, Quezon City, north side of the capital region. Operating them upon construction will disrupt digging of the fourth to 15th stations in QC, Pasig, Makati, Taguig, and Pasay Cities.

Digging is to start first quarter 2020, delayed from last Sep. and this month. Made-to-order, the Japanese tunnel boring machine (TBM) weighs 600 tons with seven-meter diameter, the size of a house. As the TBM funnels out earth, it automatically will install concrete tunnel linings. Each giant Lego-like slab weighs four to six tons. In all, five million cubic meters of earth, equivalent to 2,500 Olympic-size swimming pools, will be removed, Transportation Sec. Arthur Tugade said. So a million cubic meters, or 500 pools, will be taken from the first three stations alone.

The soil will be piled up onsite then trucked away. When the three stations open to trains and riders, the multibillion-peso TBM will have to be abandoned underground, and a new one assembled to dig succeeding stations. Taking it apart for reinsertion elsewhere would cost more. New sites will be needed for the prefab concrete walling factory and subsequent earth piles.

Japanese planners had misgivings about the change of engineering method, said Prof. Primitivo Cal. He was referring to rail experts of Japan International Cooperation Agency, which is partly funding the subway. DOTr appointees want to leave a “quick legacy” by 2022, noted the retired dean of the UP School of Urban and Regional Planning and director of the National Center for Transportation Studies. But costs ballooned due to the decision for a three-station partial opening. Four Japanese firms have been contracted for redesign and civil works.

DOTr is afflicted with “edifice complex”, Engr. Rene Santiago said. Operating the three stations will drastically delay construction of the 12 others beyond the 2025 target. Due to added costs, financial viability will be compromised, said the past president of the Transportation Science Society of the Philippines.

Another big alteration is the alignment. The subway originally was to run beneath EDSA in QC to augment MRT-3, then veer to Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, onto Manila International Airport, Pasay. In Dec. 2016 DOTr suddenly rerouted it away from EDSA onto Katipunan, QC, and BGC to Food Terminal Inc., Taguig. As the realignment twice will traverse a major earthquake fault and several flood zones, engineering will be needed. Possible but costly, said urban planner Arch. Felino Palafox Jr.

Billions of pesos went into the original surveys and feasibility studies. It was part of a Mega Manila transportation master plan by JICA, which government approved, said Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto. “Then we changed it.”

JICA experts preferred the original EDSA alignment. Less structures and businesses will be disrupted, and environment harm minimal. Cost was only P208 billion, yet ridership higher. Realigned, the cost shot up to P357 billion. Expect that to increase each year of construction, as is usual, said Recto.

Faulty planning also showed in selection of station sites. Eyed for expropriation for a temporary north depot is an industrial-commercial zone in Ugong, Valenzuela City. The 32 hectares is four times oversized for a modern depot, like that of LRT-1, LRT-2, and MRT-3 in Metro Manila, and subways in Japan. Elongated, the zone has a 2.5 km prime highway frontage, property owners pointed out in a petition to Duterte. The lots on which factories, resorts, offices, schools, restaurants, hospitals, and churches stand are worth P40,000 per square meter. Yet across the boundary in adjacent Caloocan City is a residential subdivision being sold for only a fifth of the price. Beside it are two abandoned factory lots. Government would spend less acquiring those than thickly populated, highly developed Ugong.

In Parañaque, south side of Metro Manila, is eyed a previously unannounced “Bicutan station”. As temporary road and construction yard, 168 prime residential lots are to be taken. For expropriation too are a church, schools, and shops along the main road. The government will spend incalculable sums for land purchase and community relocation. Yet it’s unnecessary, home and shop owners wrote Duterte. Two nearby government lands can serve as alternative station site; a third bigger government property is in FTI-Taguig less than a km away. All are for free use of government.

Faulty site selection is delaying DOTr rail projects, said Recto, the Senate’s foremost economist and former NEDA chief. Sen. Grace Poe is setting an inquiry. “There are subway stops that were not in the original proposal, so it appears additions were made,” she said. “We have to find out if this is cost effective or cause trouble.”

Quezon City councilors are worried about dislocations the subway realignment will cause in at least five quiet gated subdivisions. Councilors Winston Castelo, Alan Francisco and Resty Malañgen asked DOTr to avoid costly changes and delays by reverting to the original EDSA route. Councilor Victor Ferrer Jr. said dislocations and higher costs could make future administrations after Duterte discontinue the subway.

In last Wednesday’s deliberations on DOTr’s 2020 budget, Recto and Sen. Panfilo Lacson said evictees must first be recompensed before subway construction can commence. That is required by the new Right-of-Way Act.

Funding is iffy. JICA is lending P52.25 billion from 2018 to 2025. It is yet unclear where the balance for the P357-billion works will come. JICA said it shall issue no more funds after the P52.25 billion is expended.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

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