Monday, December 11, 2017
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Breaktime

Common cents

Our lovable DOTC, the Department of Transportation and Communications, which in the past four years under the Aquino (Part II) administration had yet to do just a single project meaningful to the public, recently got embroiled in another troublesome issue.

It involved—yet again—the inadequate light rail system in Metro Manila, or whatever little was there in the “system,” centering on the long-overdue “common station” project for the existing lines LRT-1 (Taft-Monumento-North) and MRT-3 (Edsa-North-Taft), and the upcoming MRT-7 (Fairview-Diliman-Edsa).

According to plans hatched by the government in 2007—yes, boss, about seven long years ago—the LRTA, or Light Rail Transit Authority, would build the station near the area with the busiest foot traffic in the entire metropolis: the SM City North mall.

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Some two years later in 2009, in fact, the DOTC and the LRTA signed an agreement with the mall owner, known as SM Prime Holdings, or the listed SMPHI. They agreed precisely to build the station in front of the mall and even to name it as “SM City North” station. The Neda board—in a Cabinet meeting, at that—also confirmed the agreement.

The company immediately released P200 million in cash donation to the LRTA for the construction of the station. It seemed that the government already spent the money on the project. This, as far back as 2010, was already evident from the huge posts for the elevated station on the street along the mall frontage. The mall owner SMPHI even participated in the subsequent “technical” planning of government. It was clear that, even four years ago in 2010, the project was already a “go.”

When the Aquino (Part II) administration came into power in the latter part of 2010, the DOTC all of a sudden shelved the project, even refusing to talk about it, despite repeated queries from the mall owner SMPHI. From what I gathered, the company wrote the DOTC five times to ask about the project. DOTC was dead silent! It was as if the project did not exist at all.

It turned out that the DOTC boss himself, Sec. Joseph Emilio Abaya, had another agenda for the project, which was to change the location of the station from the SM City North mall to another mall called Trinoma.

And guess what company owned and operated the Trinoma mall! Yes, it was none other than the Ayala group, the leading competitor of the SM group in mall operation. Remember that the Ayala group also figured prominently in another government attempt to derail the SM group in another project: the Aura mall in Bonifacio Global City.

Last year, our hero Abaya floated to media that the DOTC was toying with the idea to relocate the station. With Abaya’s announcement, SMPHI naturally tried to follow up the project with DOTC, which did not respond to the company at all.

Recently, without any official notice to SMPHI, the DOTC on its own changed the government plan, relocating the station to Trinoma without much ado, even folding it into the bidding for the extension project for LRT-1 called the Cavite extension project.

Look at that—the “common” station project and the Cavite extension project were at the opposite sides of the metropolis, and to our beloved DOTC, they should only be one and the same? Come on, boss, did you really think that the guys down here were that stupid?

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Anyway, SMPHI was only expected to file cases against the DOTC and the LRTA. It already sought a court order for the DOTC and the LRTA to follow the original plan in the 2009 agreement between the company and the government.

Apparently, the confused Abaya missed the whole point in the court case, as he accused the SM group of delaying the project. What? Really now, the SM group has been raring to do it since 2010, and the DOTC dribbled the project because it wanted to pursue a different agenda to favor another business group. The SM group simply wanted DOTC to follow the original plan, period!

Now, in the ongoing court case, both the DOTC and the LRTA even admitted before the judge that the agreement specified—clearly—that the location of the common station would be at the SM mall.

Even then our hero Abaya has been offering the public, through the media of course, all sorts of excuses regarding the suspicious DOTC agenda. He recently said that the agreement was already expired. (You know, like medicine!) He also claimed that he did not receive the many letters from SMPHI all these years. (Well, he should fire his people in the DOTC for inefficiency; the letters were all marked “received.”) At one time Abaya also called the common station an “eye sore” at the SM mall. (At the Trinoma mall, the same station would apparently be a priceless work of art!) He then put forth a rather interesting proposal, which was that the station be relocated to Trinoma while still naming it SM mall station. (What would that make the station—a bastard?)

Whatever—the simple fact remained that the contract between the government and the SM group existed, and the contract was already deemed as technically and financially beneficial to the public and the government. It was rather common sense for the technical people hired by LRTA to locate the station at the SM mall, because there they could connect all three lines—LRT-1 and MRT-3, plus MRT-7—rather seamlessly.

The location at Trinoma would exclude the MRT-7 station, for example, and the commuters thus would have to walk a long way (more than 600 meters) in what was supposed to be a “common” station during rush hours when the station would be bursting with humanity.

Originally, the common station was supposed to cost less than P800 million, and because of the DOTC-inspired delay in pursuit of a different agenda, it would now cost upwards of P1.4 billion. We were not talking of mere cents and centavos; we were talking of hundreds of millions of pesos!

Yet our heroic Abaya could still claim that government would save P1 billion because of the four-year hiatus imposed by the DOTC, although the government would have to subsidize the project to the tune of more than P1 billion of our tax money.

And who, pray tell, would most likely benefit from the DOTC agenda that caused all the delay? Well, not the public because it would be inconvenient and not the government because of the higher cost?

Wait, it would be none other than the Ayala mall Trinoma.

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TAGS: common station, Department of Transportation and Communications (DoTC), Joseph Emilio Abaya, LRT 1, MRT 3, MRT-7, Philippines, rail transport, SM, trinoma
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