EARLIER this week, the development arm of retail giant SM issued a statement expressing the hope that the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) will honor what SM insists is a binding contract to build a proposed common station linking the MRT-3, LRT-1, and future LRT-7 light rail lines in front of SM North Edsa in Quezon City.
One of our columnists has a reply he is fond of making to that kind of statement: “Hope in one hand, spit in the other, see which one fills up first.”
The 2009 contract, to recall, provided for the new station to be built alongside the SM mall in exchange for P200 million, which granted SM Prime Holdings ‘naming rights’ to the new station. In 2013, however, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) approved the common station project in terms that would allow it to be built anywhere, prompting the DOTC to immediately switch the location from in front of SM North Edsa to Trinoma mall a little farther up the tracks. Trinoma is owned by SM rival (and not surprisingly, key Aquino supporter) Ayala Group, who has a key stake in the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) that operates the LRT-1 and -2 lines.
When SM complained that this was an effective violation of its contract – naming rights for the station would have very little value if the station was in front of someone else’s mall – the DOTC cheerfully informed them that the contract had actually expired in 2011, an explanation that everyone save Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya instantly recognized as completely ludicrous.
The whole issue has ended up in the courts, naturally, and at some point in the latter half of last year, it must have dawned on Abaya and his staff that it was a case that the government would eventually lose, because the DOTC proposed a compromise: Not one but two common stations, the first next to Trinoma, and a second a few hundred meters away in the originally planned location in front of SM North Edsa.
The current alignment of the metropolis’ three light rail lines provides for three connecting stations: Taft Ave./Edsa in Pasay, where the MRT-3 and LRT-1 lines meet; Dorothea Jose/Recto Ave. in Manila, where the LRT-1 and LRT-2 lines meet; and Cubao in Quezon City, where the LRT-2 and MRT-3 lines meet. In all three locations, commuters transferring from one line to another must walk some distance to reach the next station, contending with crowds of others trying to do the same while dodging scores of street vendors occupying the pathways.
While this arrangement nevertheless does provide some small measure of convenience to commuters, it is inefficient. Since the three light rail lines were built under different contracts at different times, there was no opportunity to coordinate the plans to provide for better connecting stations; the commuting public should probably be thankful that the present ad hoc arrangement even exists.
The common station in front of SM North Edsa, the original plan, would have solved that problem by neatly connecting the three lines in one place; commuters changing from one line to another would only need to walk a short distance within the same station to board another train. It was a sensible, efficient, and given the alternatives, most cost-effective concept, and it should have been applied at once.
Instead, the government has once again stubbornly chosen to prioritize political advantage over common sense, and in the process has mangled the entire plan for light rail expansion. Not surprisingly, the project contracts are nowhere near being finalized and signed, despite Abaya’s assertion Monday that they were “close”; most of the other parties involved quickly denied that was the case on Tuesday.
Intentionally degrading the efficiency of future infrastructure projects, imposing higher costs for less effective services on the commuting public in a desperate attempt to pay off key political supporters is as good a definition of corruption as any, and it is, in any case, a very stupid way to do things, one that will eventually require money and effort to undo. With just over a year left in office, the Aquino Administration might actually do us a favor if it refrains from getting any more bright ideas like the common rail station.