The Cebu BRT delays

STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul C. Villarete - The Freeman

There’s another news article again on the delays of the Cebu Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The World Bank is proposing to restructure its financing, if only to keep it within its validity period. It’s already been a decade since the Philippine government approved it; and 15 years since Tommy Osmeña sent the first letter-request to the World Bank. If the people on top would still keep on tinkering with an otherwise multiple-proven project, what I co-wrote with Rene Santiago might prove true --it may earn us the distinction of having the “longest time to realize a BRT project in the world.”

The funny, and yet sad, thing is --it is the very agency itself, or its top leaders, who caused these delays. The project preparation was quite timely, from the time of Osmeña’s original request --Pre-Feasibility Study (Pre-FS) granted in 2009 and done in 2010-11, FS completed in 2012-13, and the project approved by the NEDA Board in 2014. The loan was approved in 2015 and by 2016, the start of implementation hinged on the issuance of a Notice to Proceed for the consultants sitting on the desk of the outgoing DOTr secretary after the 2016 elections.

It seemingly was an innocuous question. During the turnover ceremony for the change in DOTr leadership, the outgoing secretary mentioned to the incoming one, “there’s an NTP for the Cebu BRT, on my table, to be signed. Would you have me sign it or would you do it yourself?” The new secretary answered, he will just sign it later. Unfortunately, that “later” turned into months ..., into years ..., more than two, in fact. Worse, within this stalemate period, the DOTr secretary, together with the then presidential assistant for the Visayas, proceeded to officially ask NEDA to have the Cebu BRT cancelled.

It was one for books, the first time it ever happened, and would probably be the last, too. The secretary of the proponent agency --the one which did all the requisite preparatory studies of a project-- Pre-FS, FS, and Detailed Engineering, and its owner and implementor, initiated moves for its cancellation and officially asked NEDA to do so. And in another first (for it has never happened, not even once, before), NEDA rejected the request and ordered the agency (DOTr) to implement the NEDA-approved project.

What would a government department secretary do, when ordered to execute a project it wanted cancelled? Comply grudgingly, I guess. By this time, we can already see what ails BRTs in this country --its concept needs some level of understanding. And when you can’t, you tend to disagree with it and oppose it. The 2013 and 2019 DOTr secretaries understood and supported the Cebu BRT, the 2016 DOTr secretary didn’t and wanted it canceled. That’s just the problem with BRTs --it takes a certain level of understanding, without which, you wouldn’t see why it works, and better at that! And because of this peculiarity, some people oppose it, and delays are incurred.

So far, the Cebu BRT is moving progressively. Let’s hope no new DOTr secretary who doesn't understand BRTs, comes along, and tinkers with it again. Or worse, cancels it again.

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