MANILA, Philippines – It was an issue that many sectors wanted President Benigno Aquino III to address in his farewell State of the Nation Address (SONA), but similar to his first SONA in 2010, he again blamed his predecessor's "political decisions" for the current sorry state of the Metro Rail Transit 3.
The MRT3 has been thrust under critical public spotlight since one of its trains got derailed in August 2014. Lawmakers and commuters have slammed the Aquino administration for failing to improve the operations of one of Metro Manila's busiest mass railway transit lines.
In his final SONA on Monday, July 27, Aquino exonerated Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya and instead blamed the private firm tasked to maintain the upkeep of the train line, the Metro Rail Transit Corporation (MRTC).
The President also said that his administration merely inherited the problems of the train line. This was a sentiment he earlier expressed in September 2014, where he blamed his predecessor, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, for neglecting the MRT3.
In his first SONA in 2010, Aquino pointed to decisions based on "bad politics" as one of the reasons behind the deteriorating state of the mass transit line.
In his 2010 speech, Aquino talked about how the previous administration had to dip into public coffers to pay the debts of the National Power Corporation (Napocor), after forcing it to sell electricity at a loss to prevent increases in power rates.
This was an example of a decision that was "based on bad politics, not on the true needs of the people."
It was also what happened to the MRT, Aquino said.
"The government tried again to buy the people’s love. The operator was forced to keep the rates low," the President said.
"In effect, the guarantee given to the operator that he will still be able to recoup his investment was not fulfilled. Because of this, Landbank and the Development Bank of the Philippines were ordered to purchase the MRT. The money of the people was used in exchange for an operation that was losing money," he added.
The complicated structures of MRT-3's ownership and economic interest were both a result of the government's generous financial guarantees to the private proponents in the 1990's and the succeeding efforts to resolve the mounting debts the government had to shoulder following populist moves to keep fares down.
On February 28, 2013, Aquino issued Executive Order 126, authorizing the implementation of the MRT3 buyout.
The executive order was meant "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."
In his 2013 SONA, Aquino again made mention of the MRT and the Light Rail Transit (LRT), but did not refer to the train line's glitches and breakdowns.
Instead, he mentioned the need to raise fares, a move that eventually went into effect two years later.
In justifying the need for a fare hike, Aquino pointed out that all Filipinos – including those from the Visayas and Mindanao – subsidize the fares of Metro Manila passengers.
He again attributed this to decisions made "based on politics."
"Leaders did everything they could just to keep a firm hold on their power – at the expense of the suffering of present and future generations of Filipinos," he said.
He added, "Perhaps it is only reasonable for us to move the fares of the MRT and LRT closer to the fares of air-conditioned buses, so that the government subsidy for the MRT and LRT can be used for other social services."
In January 2015, fare hikes for the 3 major train lines in Metro Manila finally took effect. But data presented to the House transportation committee in June showed that 7 months since the fare hike, the MRT has recorded more technical glitches, service interruptions, and fewer operational trains.
In his final SONA, Aquino promised that the government is working on long-term solutions, such as upgrading the MRT3's signalling system and automated fare collection system, and repairing broken rails.