Railway projects may yet undergo the most meticulous probing, involving not just local but international experts overseeing the entire build process
Much public attention has been devoted to adding more roads—on, below, and above ground—as the solution to the National Capital Region’s worsening traffic situation. It can be said, however, that the unsung hero, or maybe the “sleeping giant” here, could be our railway systems.
The current administration recognizes that our long-neglected trains and railway systems are key to solving one of the country’s most nagging—and costliest—problems (economic losses due to road congestion was estimated to be at least $53.6 million per day, or around $18 billion a year, in 2014, according to the Philippine Development Plan). In fact, some of the biggest projects involve the development of railway projects. In the Asian Development Bank (ADB) website, a 2019 article cited big-ticket projects under the “Build, Build, Build (BBB)” program. These include the North-South Commuter Railway (NSCR), a 163-km suburban railway network connecting urban growth areas in Pampanga and Tarlac provinces in the north and Calamba in Laguna province in the south to Metro Manila. The railway, including links to the soon-to-be-completed New Clark City in Tarlac, will be constructed in sections.
The ADB also approved a $2.75-billion financing facility for the Malolos-Clark Railway Project covering two sections of the NSCR. Under the facility, $1.3 billion would be committed this year to fund the project, with two additional tranches to be released by 2022. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is co-financing the project. This would be ADB’s biggest project in the Philippines and ADB’s single largest infrastructure project financing in its 52-year history.
These are all noble and ambitious plans, no doubt. Still, remember the pop culture adage, “With great power comes great responsibility”? In this case, it would be: “With big money comes massive tomfoolery”. Time and again, corruption in the country’s public works has reared its ugly head so often that the public has come to expect that much of what is actually spent on a project lines pockets instead of pavements. So, what’s to stop some unscrupulous individuals from helping themselves to 10-figure windfalls?
During the April 28 press briefing at the Department of Transportation (DOTr), a few minutes after the ceremonial signing of the so-called “Reaffirmation of Integrity and Pledge of Cooperation and Oath of Honesty” with the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC), the department stressed that the railway projects may yet undergo the most meticulous probing, involving not just local but international experts overseeing the entire build process.
Lawyer Timothy John R. Batan, Undersecretary for Railways of the DOTr railway center, told media most of the projects in the railway sector are funded by the so-called Official Development Assistance (ODA), the bulk of which come from the country’s development partners like the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), ADB, China Exim Bank and China International Development Cooperation Agency (Cidca).
“From the start, before our development partners approve the affordable loans for our ODA projects, the group performs meticulous governance audits to make sure that our implementing agencies like DOTr apply systems and processes that will ensure that there will be clean, transparent and corruption-free implementation of the projects,” Batan explained.
He added that, from the start of the project, “we would not be supported or would be granted loans from our development partners if they were not confident enough that the DOTr agency would be able to execute the projects properly and free from corruption.”
Batan also disclosed that there were “periodic audits” implemented by the DOTr’s development partners, making sure that the projects were being properly implemented, including compliance of international governance safeguards—not just in the beginning, but throughout the duration of the project.
“This means that we (undergo) double audits or double compliance overseeing our projects, which includes the audit and compliance of the Commission on Audit (COA), according to local rules and regulations, and the additional audit and compliance with international governance standards, which in some aspects, are even stricter compared to our COA requirements,” said Batan.
Batan then explained how procurement and procurement services were done for big DOTr contracts. “Included in these multi-agency arrangements is the involvement of international consultants and development partners in what we call technical working groups in the procurement so that many experts will be involved in probing all our procurement processes. Our bidding documents, evaluation results, awards and contracts all need concurrence or approval of our development lenders before everything is finalized, which adds to the safeguards of the process.”
The final safeguard from corruption, said Batan, would be the speed of processing of billings and invoices of contractors. Since delays in billings are not a good sign of transparency and efficiency, the DOTr has made sure it’s applying systems to monitor and control the speed of processing and payments to its contractors to make sure no billings would be delayed without justifiable reason.
These measures are meant to keep the big-ticket railway projects on its tracks, and on-track to completion. That is, after the disruption of an unanticipated pandemic has passed on.