A long, winding road for better Metro Manila transport

Chrisee Dela Paz

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A long, winding road for better Metro Manila transport
Several infrastructure deals that are seen to solve the nightmarish Metro Manila traffic are still hounded by delays

MANILA, Philippines — Year 2015 has been rough for commuters in Metro Manila: frequent technical glitches at the busiest mass railway transit line, pending toll hike for most major expressways, severely congested traffic near Port Area in Manila, and the surge of private vehicles on the streets.

For the Philippine government, it has started taking steps to address these painstaking transportation woes. Some of its solutions are:

  • Buying out the assets of Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT3) from private sector owner MRT Holdings II, Incorporated
  • Taking in delivery of new MRT3 coaches
  • Inviting private investors to undertake the construction, operation, and maintenance of a toll road that will link North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) and South Luzon Expressway (SLEX)
  • Building MRT Line 7 (MRT7) that will link North Avenue in Quezon City to San Jose in Bulacan
  • Constructing a common station that will connect MRT3, Light Rail Transit Line 1 (LRT1), and the future MRT7

But it might take a long time before commuters will feel the change, as these projects experience policy U-turns and legal roadblocks, putting brakes on the projects’ implementation.

MRT3 buyout

It has been over two years since President Benigno Aquino III issued Executive Order (EO) 126 to implement the buyout of MRT3 in 2013.

Under EO 126, Aquino authorized the implementation of the MRT3 buyout “to avert the arbitration case filed in 2009 by the MRT3 owner against the government due to, among others, failure to timely pay equity rental payment.”

The transportation department initially targeted to complete the buyout in 2014.

But the buyout is being stalled after the bicameral committee in 2015 rejected the P53.9-billion ($1.18-billion) MRT3 budget, retaining only P18.3 billion ($401.89 million). (READ: SONA 2015: Aquino blames private firm for MRT3 woes)

Of the P18.3 billion, P4.4 billion ($98.26 million) will be allocated for the buyout; P7.4 billion ($165.25 million) for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the MRT3; and P6.5 billion ($145.15 million) for the payment of taxes in connection with MRT3’s build-lease-transfer (BLT) contract.

Transportation chief Joseph Emilio Abaya told reporters last month that the agency “now targets to implement it (MRT3 equity value buyout) before the Aquino administration ends.”

Once the MRT3 assets are in the hands of the government, Abaya promised commuters “better operations and maintenance” of the train line.

The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), Department of Finance (DOF), Department of Budget and Management (DBM), and Land Bank of the Philippines are studying ways to expedite the buyout.

Abaya said that “budget is no longer an issue.”

“We will convince the Congress to include it in the 2016 national budget,” he told reporters.

New MRT3 coaches

The DOTC has a bit of good news: MRT3 passengers could now expect speedier services, as the delivery of 48 new train coaches has started this month.

“The second coach has arrived. The third one will be here this month. The fourth and fifth one in February. The sixth, seventh, and eighth in March, and then 4 coaches per month thereafter,” Abaya said in a mobile phone reply on Wednesday, January 6.

As of January 7, the goverment has received two new train coaches for MRT3. Forty-six more coaches will be delivered from Dalian in China in the next months.

Other than the new coaches, Abaya said MRT3 problems are being addressed by long-term rehabilitation and improvement projects, such as additional train cars, and the replacement of around 7,000 meters of rails, which may begin soon after their delivery within the month.

The delivery of these train coaches is seen to address the decaying MRT3. Commuters walking on overhead rail tracks several storeys high beside stalled trains have become a common sight in the packed megacity of 12 million people.

In August 2014, dozens were injured after one train overshot its track and rammed into a busy highway. (READ: MRT-3 train derailed, injuries reported)

MRT7 construction

It has been over 7 years since the San Miguel Corporation-backed Universal LRT Corporation Limited in 2008 bagged the MRT7 deal.

But until now, the construction of the train line has not started.

The construction of the future MRT7 is facing delays due to a change in the terms of the deal, which is the location of the proposed common station on EDSA, a Cabinet official said.

MRT7’s 25-year concession agreement calls for the common station to be located near SM City-North EDSA.

The DOTC, however, decided this year to transfer it near Ayala Land, Incorporated’s TriNoma mall, adjacent to SM City North, saying that it will “benefit commuters more.”

“We’re just waiting for the DOTC’s final plan on common station,” San Miguel President and COO Ramon Ang told reporters in a November meeting.

San Miguel needs DOTC’s decision on the location of the common station before it can secure funding for the construction of the P62.7-billion ($1.33-billion) MRT7.

PPP Center Executive Director Cosette Canilao told reporters in December that San Miguel has until February to complete the financial closing of the project.

“We talked to the private partner for MRT7. The deadline is for them to do financial closing in February. They are working to meet that and start groundbreaking soon,” Canilao said in a media briefing in Quezon City in December.

The rail component of the MRT7 project involves the construction of a 22.8-kilometer rail-transit system envisioned to operate 108 rail cars in a 3-car train configuration, with a daily passenger capacity ranging from 448,000 to 850,000.

It also involves the construction of 14 train stations starting from San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, to North Avenue, Quezon City. It will be connected to the existing MRT3 and Light Rail Transit Line 1 (LRT1) via a common station on EDSA.

The construction “will take an estimated 42 months to complete,” SMC said in a disclosure. (READ: PH’s PPP thrust: Work in progress)

Now, it is all up to DOTC’s final plan for the common station before the San Miguel group can start the MRT7 construction.

NLEX-SLEX Connector Road

Although the truck ban in Manila was already lifted in September 2014, commuters living and working near the port area still suffer long travel time due to congested roads.

“The national government’s lack of a long-term solution is the problem; all they do is come up with band-Aid measures,” an official of Manila South Harbor who requested anonymity said in an interview.

“Band-Aid solutions should be paired up with a macro development, like a skyway connecting NLEX and SLEX,” the source said.

This statement was reaffirmed by Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson, saying that a road that would link NLEX and SLEX, like Metro Pacific Tollways Corporation‘s proposed P23-billion ($485.95-million) Connector Road project, would be the “solution to port congestion as it will connect directly to NLEX from the port area.”

It was just last month when the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board authorized the DPWH to subject Metro Pacific’s proposal to a Swiss challenge.

The Swiss challenge is the route the government takes when dealing with unsolicited proposals, by accepting competing offers and giving the original proponent the right to match them.

This PPP project involves the construction of an 8-kilometer, 4-land toll road that will link the existing NLEX and SLEX. (READ: Swiss challenge for NLEX-SLEX Connector to start October)

 Metro Pacific submitted a formal proposal to the government in 2012. The government took them about 3 years to decide on it.

Common Station

The most controversial of all these projects is the LRT-MRT Common Station deal of the DOTC.

It has been over a year since the Supreme Court stopped the transfer of the location of the LRT-MRT Common Station, but the problem is still unsolved, hampering the construction of badly-needed mass transit infrastructure projects: MRT7 and LRT1 Cavite Extension deals.

The DOTC and Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) have yet to present a compromise agreement to the private stakeholders of a common station for train systems that will converge in North Avenue, Quezon City.

DOTC said its compromise agreement involves two common stations: one near SM City North EDSA that will connect MRT7 to MRT3, and another near Ayala’s TriNoma mall that will connect LRT1 and MRT3.

DOTC’s new approach is meant to resolve a conflict with SM Prime over the common station. SM Prime in August 2014 obtained a high court order stopping DOTC and the LRTA from transferring the location of the common station to TriNoma mall.

“These projects are going to address transportation issues. It is as if walang ginagawa (It is as if we are doing nothing), but there are so many things being done, naumpisahan (started), na-award na (awarded), ginagawa na (being constructed),” Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board Chairman Winston Ginez said over lunch in Quezon City on Tuesday, January 5.

If delays continue to hound the implementation of these infrastructure deals, commuters will continue to bear the day-to-day nightmarish Metro Manila traffic. – Rappler.com


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