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Catch up: The DOTC's race to 2016

MANILA, Philippines – The view from the top floors of the Columbia Tower in Mandaluyong can be overwhelming.

One side of the building overlooks the busy EDSA-Ortigas intersection – there's the overstretched Metro Rail Transit 3, the almost-always congested EDSA, and the ever-present "colorum" (illegal) buses that ply the avenue as if they owned it.

It's a view the average Filipino finds annoying, frustrating, infuriating even. But when you're a part of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), which holds office in the tower, the view is a snapshot of everything that's wrong in the country's transportation sector.

A game of "catch up" is how many DOTC officials describe it. It's a difficult race with an arbitrary deadline that looms near: 2016, or when the country picks a new administration.

Stagnation, bad contracts

Most recently, the MRT 3 has been the bane of the DOTC's existence. Long lines, repeated glitches, and its apparent mismanagement have pushed commuter groups to call for the resignation of its general manager, Al Vitangcol III.

Vitangcol denied allegations of corruption and extortion, saying he would resign once his name is cleared. The Palace, meanwhile, defended its appointee and said the population boom is not Vitangcol's fault.

The rise in demand has forced the rail line to accommodate over 580,000 passengers a day – a far cry from its "crush capacity" of 500,000 and its designed capacity of only 360,000 a day.

DOTC Secretary Jun Abaya said 2014's MRT 3 problem is a result of almost 6 years of inaction from both government and private sector. "Way back in 2008, there was a series of communication... we need to build, we need to purchase (more trains)," he told Rappler.

It's the government's "boss" – in this case, the ordinary Metro Manila commuter – who suffered as a result of the deadlock. "Probably the private sector refused because of that right of first to add or invest more, and government either didn't want to because they also fear the legal consequences," explained Abaya.

"There is no incentive for the owner to make the service good because at the end of the day, whether they invest or just take time sipping coffee in the beach, they earn what they earn. So, it's really conducive na pabayaan na lang nila 'yung facility, they still get their money," added the transportation chief.

The DOTC is now trying to fix almost 7 years of stagnation – acquiring 48 train cars for the MRT 3 to expand its capacity. The government also wants to buy out the MRT 3 private shareholders, allowing it to have a full say in the operations and maintenance of the rail system.

Although temporarily stalled by a 20-day "temporary protection order" in February, the DOTC is now taking no stops in expanding the busy line, which has stations near the metro's business districts.

The problem with catch up

But since the government is on "catch up" mode, it will take time for commuters to feel the benefit of new contracts, projects and acquisitions. The first set of trains is supposed to be delivered by 2015, and all 48 by the end of President Benigno Aquino III's term in 2016.

The worst-case scenario, a DOTC official said, would be a late delivery in early 2017.

Until then, Metro Manila's commuters will have to content with the nightmare that is now the MRT 3 rush hour commute. "We're all playing catch up and that's why you have the long lines," said Abaya.

The President and his men are well aware of the little time they have left. More than halfway through his term, the administration wants its biggest goals to be signed, sealed, and delivered before 2016.

New names in government, after all, could easily put a stop to this administration's ideas even before they really take off.

DOTC Assistant Secretary for planning and finance Booey Bonifacio is a newbie in the department. Although she worked as a consultant since October 2013, Bonifacio was only formally appointed in December last year.

Previously with the Asian Development Bank, Bonifacio is quick to admit that the transition to government is anything but easy. While fixing transportation systems are hard enough, Bonifacio said it's the bureaucratic process that makes things go at a snail's pace.

Bidding, awarding

Projects have to go through a proof of concept even before going through the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) several times. It typically takes over a year before a project can even reach the bidding process.

While necessary to establish the validity and necessity of a project, it also makes catch up so much harder.

"That's when the ball game ends, right? It's the last two minutes," said Abaya of 2016.

But the transportation chief does not want to name "priorities" when it comes to the projects the DOTC wants to roll out. "Everything is a priority. I couldn't even say, 'airport is more prioritized than rails.' No, as I see it, the PPP projects are in a pipeline. Sometimes, you actually have two pipes coming out," he said.

A lot of projects are being finalized, submitted for NEDA review, bid out, are close to being awarded. Abaya says he's confident each and every one of them will be a done deal by 2016.

"I have been criticized...why am I happy targeting awards and not targeting completion? From my point of view, the awarding is probably 75% of the problematic portion, 25% is you have an accountable party who is now obligated and has a live contract, which government will implement," he explained.

It's a sentiment Bonifacio echoes. "Once we bid it out, award the project, hopefully tuloy-tuloy na 'yan," she said. –