The death of the BRT in Metro Manila?

One of the less consoling things I read lately is the cancellation of the World Bank loan for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System project. Don’t be confused: I am not for loans but I am for making public transport more efficient especially in these Carmageddon and wallet-emptying times.

The BRT system concept started in Latin America but was picked up and introduced in 1989 by investment banker and entrepreneur, Francis Yuseco, Jr. The concept was then sold to key government agencies during the Ramos and Estrada administrations. Despite several decades of discussions, the concept failed to materialize until the near-end of the PNOY Administration though not anymore with Yuseco but with other proponents. The Duterte Administration picked-up the discussions leading to the World Bank loan approval of $64 million (P3.5 billion) on March 16, 2017. But because there was tepid acceptance on the part of key Philippine government officials, the government was only able to sign the loan documents on February 14, 2019 and declared effective a month later.

Fast forward, the project did not move at all despite the approval of the Loans Agreement. With the Agreement’s closing date set at November 30, 2022, the Department of Finance was forced to request for a loan cancellation citing among others, the “weak capacity of the implementing agency. The excuse is, sad to note, ridiculous because technical capacities were included in the feasibility study — one of the bases why the loan was approved. And with the resources, it is impossible why the lead agency cannot hire experts.

When Tonette de Jesus and I wrote a rapid assessment on why the BRT Project failed to take off from the Ramos to the Arroyo Administrations, we noted that there is a sheer lack of champions for BRT within the government. The reasons: The BRT system is cheap and the prevailing culture of corruption within the government ranks cannot feed on it; The presence of weak institutional set-up due to the existence of different agencies that perform interrelated tasks; and, The dynamics between the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and the local government units (LGU) in the National Capital Region.

The study was conducted during the time of PNOY but with Duterte at the helm and his “I will kill you” leadership, the weak institutional set-up as well as the MMDA-LGU dynamics cannot be considered as an excuse — not unless Duterte’s machoistic persona is just a façade. The latter, however, is unbelievable because not only did the former president cursed Obama and the Pope but also made true his promise against those addicted to dope. And, allegedly, he slapped a municipal mayor in Rizal because of being in the narco-list. The mayor died months later because of shame but that is another story.

So what remains is the first — the culture of corruption which the Duterte administration failed to solve. As we noted in our assessment, the BRT system is cheaper by five times compared to light trail transit systems — US$7 million per kilometer as against the latter’s US$32 million per kilometer. If the “kickback” for every project is 34% of the total cost, what project will a decision maker choose? Definitely not the cheap one, right?

Second, Duterte had been promising to end the traffic in 3-6 months. According to the World Bank study, the BRT project along the España Boulevard and Quezon Avenue route will service 300,000 commuters daily. Among those who will benefit are the women who comprise 55% of the daily commuters who can be assured of a safe, reliable and comfortable rides.

Of course, there will also be benefits to the environment as “BRT are cost-effective options for reducing emissions of harmful gases that cause climate change” according to Zhihong Zhang of the Clean Technology Fund. “Implementation of this project alone will prevent the release of around 2.6 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere in the next 20 years. Transport is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions globally and projects like this show the road to a cleaner future,” Zhang continued.

BRT, of course, will “kill” the business operations of bus and taxi companies as well as the transportation companies approved by the Duterte administration as alternatives to Grab and Uber. These include the JoyRide which is being linked to Koko Pimentel, and three other companies linked to Bong Go.

In simple terms, the BRT system, at least in NCR, will never succeed because of the competing interests that the decision makers need to weigh. Unfortunately, the public interest weighs less.

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