A correspondent sent me a longish and anguished e-mail with a request. Please take a break from political commentary and take note of what is going around in a sector that involves the citizens basic right to three things: decent infrastructure, mobility and ease of travel. Infra is falling apart, the e-mail said, and the government agencies concerned, instead of issuing prompt notices to proceed (NTP) to green light road improvement and expansion works, have been literally issuing notices to delay.
After all, he intoned, the freedom of mobility is a subsidiary of the basic and fundamental rights of citizens.
My first impulse was to ask “What is new?” Everything I know about “daang matuwid” is either a joke, a tragedy or a farce. But the depressing facts and figures on how the various agencies of the Aquino administration have been bungling the efforts to provide citizens with decent and interconnected road networks, plus the hell that a gridlocked EDSA brings to commuters, are too overwhelming and too depressing to ignore.
For those without a solid grounding on how infrastructure works, a few acronyms give one a rudimentary knowledge. The most important is NTP, which is an advisory for the private party to proceed with a specific project after winning the tenders and the fulfillment of the paper works. Another is O& M, which gives a private party the contract to maintain and run an established infrastructure such as a tool road. Another is ROW, or right of way, the physical hurdles (mostly private property that blocks or encroaches on a government infra project) that must be cleared for the non-stop, unimpaired construction of that project.
All of the three – ROW, NTP and O&M – are in a state of stasis, the e-mail said. With the stasis, the state of the infra sector is nothing but sclerotic. Exhibit A is the SCTEX, which I use at least twice a week and whose sad state of disrepair I am truly familiar with. A sad state made worse by the torrential rains.
This is beyond belief but this is what I learned from the e-mail. The SCTEX, which was put to use in mid-2008, has no O&M contractor right now and this has been the case over the past several years. What? What then is the role of MNTC, which to everyone’s knowledge is the O&M contractor, in the whole thing?
According to the anguished e-mail, the private contractor signed an O&M contract with the Arroyo administration in 2009. The Aquino administration predictably asked for a renegotiation. Three renegotiations were held and a contract was about to be signed after the finalization of the terms. But Mr. Aquino said “Wait” and ordered the BCDA to accept competitive bids under a so-called “Swiss Challenge.” That was done. But no one was interested in topping the bid of the MNTC and its French partner. In February this year, in a Malacañang ceremony witnessed by Mr. Aquino and Prime Minister Francois Hollande, an O&M contract was signed.
You know what? Even after that February fanfare, the O&M is still a no-go. The Toll Regulatory Board wants a presidential approval of the supplemental toll operating agreement, for reasons only the TRB knows. The P3.5 billion that was initially deposited as down payment for the O&M is lying idle. Meanwhile, the SCTEX has potholes and cracks all over. At the Porac –Mancatian portion, a long north-bound stretch has been closed to traffic for months. Several accidents have taken place in this portion, including minor ones like the time the bumper of my rusty pick-up kissed a concrete barrier. I cursed the operator to high heavens after that recent incident. But who do I curse now, with the knowledge that there is no signed maintenance contract for the toll road.
That the longest and the costliest toll road in our infra history has no O&M contractor over the past several years is too incredulous to be true. But it is and that is both an assault on our sanity and physical safety.
If you think SCTEX is an isolated case of government’s lack of focus on vital infra projects, you will be in for a shock.
The Skyway 3 project in Metro Manila undertaken by SMC- Citra and the MPIC’s NLEX-SLEX connector road will have to undergo a major redesign. They will have to share the same construction platform with another project, the North – South Line rehab project of the PNR. The rude entry of the PNR rehab into the picture means that all the original construction plans for the Skyway and the Connector Road will have to be set aside for another costly and unnecessary redesign. More, the Connector Road will have to face another competitive bid via the usual Swiss Challenge and only God knows when.
Right-of-way problems bug the P16 billion Ninoy Aquino Airport Expressway, which was supposed to be completed before the APEC Conference in November. The project was designed to connect NAIA 1, 2 and 3, a seamless interconnection that would bring relief to airplane passengers.
The more than P35-billion costing Cavite-Laguna Expressway (CALAX) may be delayed by the same ROW woes, which the government was supposed to deliver to the private contracting party after the signing of the contract.
The list of vital road projects that have fallen prey to government’s hewing and hawing does not end there. The NLEX Harbor Link project has been suffering from unnecessary delays and so is the extension of NLEX from Mindanao Avenue to Commonwealth Avenue. Why can’t the government deliver the ROW clearances? That is perplexing to say the least but it suggests one thing – the lack of seriousness and focus on projects that would ease the freedom on movement and impact on the economy.
With the EDSA in a perpetual state of hellish gridlock (and right now beyond solution), the government should have, at the very least, aspired to fast-track the vital non-EDSA expansion works. But for one reason or another, the government has failed and failed miserably to take urgent action and deliver.