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Analysis

Palace stonewalls on MRT inquiry

(First of two parts)

In the midst of the scorching heat at the advent of Holy Week, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. brought down a storm of public wrath on the Aquino administration after he rebuked commuters at the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) to take the bus instead if they cannot endure the long queues at the stations of the congested railway system.

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Coloma, whose insolence and insensitivity in defending the administration against mounting criticism of its performance during its past three years in office are well known, last week sparked a barrage of denunciation in the social media over his irascible remarks: That MRT commuters should stop complaining and take other modes of transportation if they cannot suffer the long queues. He brusquely told them other modes of public transport, such as buses, were available.

The trains are the most rapid public transport facility commuting between home and work in Metro Manila. The buses, the jeepneys and the taxis are not desirable options to the trains; therefore, they are not considered alternatives by commuters.

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Coloma’s remarks flew in the face of the daily observed reality that, for the past few years, MRT commuters have been enduring long lines at the stations due to lack of trains during peak hours.

In a Senate inquiry two weeks ago, MRT General Manager Al Vitangcol admitted that the 15-year-old railway started exceeding its designed capacity of 320,000 passengers daily as early as 2004 and now moves about half a million commuters daily. Vitangcol said additional trains would not start arriving until  2015 or early 2016, at the end of the term of the Aquino administration.

We are not sure whether Vitangcol will stay in the MRT long enough to see the arrival of the new trains. Also, we are not sure how long Coloma will remain secretary of communications, at the rate he is compounding the unpopularity of the Aquino administration with his contentious and offensive remarks related to the public issues concerning the administration’s performance.

Both Vitangcol and Coloma are under fire over the MRT issue. Coloma, in particular, has made an obsequious apology to the public for his patronizing remarks, if the public can’t endure the queues at the train platforms, let them take the buses.

Instead of telling Vitangcol to shape up or ship out, Malacañang has defended him against his critics. There is doubt that Coloma’s apology has hosed down public anger over his insolence. Rather than mollify the disgruntled commuters, the administration fanned their anger by rejecting out of hand widespread public demands that President Aquino sack Vitangcol for the worsening bottlenecks at the MRT.

Coloma rammed down the throats of the commuting public the explanation that the congestion at the MRT stations “comes from the natural increase in the population and the propensity of commuters to use a particular mode of public transport over another.” In a press conference, he told reporters: “The increase in population, can you blame that on Mr. Vitangcol? It seems a bit overreaching to blame everything on one official.”

Vintage aggravation

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Coloma stopped short of blaming Filipinos for their fecundity in producing children. Who then should be held accountable for the underperformance of the MRT?

Adding insult to injury, Coloma told commuters to consider other modes of transport until the government acquires more train coaches to carry the huge volume of passengers. “Perhaps, it’s time to look for other options while we’re waiting for the arrival of the new coaches,” he said, adding that there were “thousands of of passenger buses” on Edsa. “Those buses are not full.”

This response is vintage aggravation by the Aquino administration when it is taken to task for shortfalls in delivering results on public improvement projects or in creating jobs to help reduce poverty—i.e., stonewalling on a nonfunctional solution, and shifting the blame to external factors, in this particular case, the population explosion and commuters’ preferential option for the MRT rather than other modes of public transport.

The prospects of acquiring additional railway coaches by 2015 to relieve the railway transit system of congestion are dim. Aside from the worsening conditions at the MRT, Vitangcol faces investigation for allegations that he tried to extort $30 million from a Czech train maker that wanted to join the auction of a contract for 48 new coaches for the MRT in 2012.

Vitangcol is the first-ranking official of the Aquino administration to be accused of venality, virtually of corruption, under a regime that claims transparency as the platform of its political reforms. How the Aquino government’s slogan, “matuwid na daan (straight path)” squares off with its handling of the charges against Vitangcol has become a public litmus test of the administration’s anticorruption campaign. This is why developments on the investigation into the Vitangcol case are being closely watched for signs whether the administration is protecting or covering up for Vitangcol.

DOTC muddled inquiry

The President has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to look into the alleged extortion attempt on Inekon, the Czech train manufacturer, which Czech Ambassador to the Philippines Josef Rychtar exposed in July last year, raising doubts about the credibility of the Aquino administration’s commitment to clean and honest government. Malacañang has said that the President wanted to expedite the investigation, which Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said two weeks ago had been completed. She said the NBI was now reviewing its findings.

The NBI started the investigation based on affidavits submitted by Rychtar detailing the alleged extortion attempt. In his affidavits, Rychtar accused Vitangcol of attempting to extort $30 million from the Czech train coach builder Inekon Group in July 2012 through Wilson de Vera, a member of President Aquino’s Liberal Party who lost the mayoral election in Calasiao, Pangasinan province, in 2013.

According to the ambassador, Vitangcol and De Vera asked Inekon to pay $30 million to win the contract for 48 coaches for the MRT. Rychtar and Josef Husek, the Inekon Group CEO, have submitted sworn statements to the NBI, and Vitangcol has denied the allegations of the Czechs. According to Rychtar, De Vera behaved like he was Vitangcol’s “envoy” as he suggested that Inekon pay $30 million to win the contract for the 48 coaches.

The plot thickened as Vitangcol was earlier cleared by a separate Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) inquiry, on the grounds that it had not received a formal written complaint from Rychtar. This development muddled the status of the case. (To be concluded on Wednesday)

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TAGS: Al Vitangcol, amando doronila, Government, Herminio Coloma, mrt inquiry, opinion
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