Testing the mettle of Mar Roxas

“Patok!” (Pilipino colloquial for perfect) I exclaimed upon learning of the elevation of Mar Roxas to the Department of Transportation and Communications. In contrast, many pundits belittle his DoTC posting as a mere ploy to checkmate him from swallowing more powers as presidential chief of staff, the post originally intended for him.

Arteries and nerves. However, Roxas himself welcomed his appointment, picturesquely comparing his portfolio with the body’s “veins and arteries” that “move products and people all over the country.” The DoTC navigates not only “transportation” byways; it also directs “communications” nationwide. So, I say that he will clear and steer not just the nation’s arteries but also the nerve center that directs the heart, muscles and limbs of the body politic.

His personal clout I think will not be diminished by his new job. His friendship with President Aquino was forged in platinum long ago. P-Noy himself said they have “the same mindset, the same vision.” I do not think P-Noy will ever forget that Roxas readily gave up his own presidential ambitions when, after Cory Aquino died, the clamor for P-Noy became irresistible.

Roxas set aside his own campaign for the vice presidency to concentrate on P-Noy’s victory. Even as a private citizen during the last 12 months, he had been a constant companion and adviser of P-Noy here and abroad. That P-Noy absolutely trusts Roxas will always define their personal relationship and brotherly bond.

Eight of 10 PPPs. Instead of floating as an undefined “chief of staff,” Roxas will now have his own budget and fiefdom to run. There are over a dozen Cabinet departments, but remarkably, the DoTC handles eight of the 10 Public-Private Partnership (PPP) projects that the government wants to bid out this year.

In this sense, the DoTC is the most important government agency in the frontline of P-Noy’s war on poverty. It will be the pivotal entity that will energize the PPP. Although Cesar Purisima leads the PPP program, I am confident the good finance secretary realizes the frontline role of Roxas and will defer to his strategies.

The feasibility studies for these PPP projects are almost shovel-ready, and the private business sector eagerly awaits them, to bid for and undertake them. Their early implementation will surely revitalize the economy that has turned sluggish lately, with new job hires and with new requisitions of construction equipment and materials.

Roxas will instantly be the spark of our economic recovery and the indispensable key to the success of the PPP program. The President will personally head the war on corruption, while Roxas will spearhead the war on poverty. Very neat!

Nettlesome issues. Apart from these PPP projects, there are several complex DoTC issues that will test the mettle of Roxas, among them:

First, the Naia 3. My two columns on January 9 and 16 detailed the labyrinths of and possible solutions to the horrible mess at Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia 3). So, I will no longer repeat them now. Suffice it to point out that this problem has festered for 10 years with no end in sight. It has reached many forums including our Supreme Court, the Singapore-based Arbitration Tribunal of the International Chamber of Commerce, and the Washington-based International Center for the Settlement of International Disputes (Icsid) of the World Bank.

True, the Regional Trial Court of Pasay has recently fixed the “just compensation” due the Philippine International Air Terminal Company (Piatco) at $175 million, way below its demand of over a billion dollars. Consequently, Piatco I am sure will elevate this ruling to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

Money and law are not the only problems here. They are also diplomatic because the German government (via Fraport) is a major stakeholder in Piatco. Roxas could try novel solutions, including abandoning the apparently overpriced terminal and just constructing a new one. After all, we may have to wait another 10 years to solve the legal problems besetting it.

It may indeed be cheaper and faster to build a new terminal than to wait for the legal solutions to be eked out by the various forums. Abandoning Terminal 3 may even convince Piatco to agree to the $175-million RTC ruling, since it cannot operate the facility on its own because the Supreme Court has canceled its franchise in 2003.

Second, the $1.8 billion, 80-kilometer North Luzon Railway, now seven years in the making, is at a virtual standstill. The DOTC, under the indefatigable Ping de Jesus, wanted to renegotiate the many disadvantageous provisions of the agreement with China National Machinery and Engineering Group. Though deemed very expensive, the contract cannot just be rescinded because it involves the Chinese government, which is funding the project.

Third, Roxas will need the best of his political skills to mediate the Land Transportation Office (LTO) row with Stradcom, which has resulted in the suspension from office of LTO chief Virginia Torres, allegedly a P-Noy buddy.

There are other nettlesome issues the new DOTC boss will face, including the P11-billion roll-on roll-off seaports funded by France, the P7-billion radar control project funded by Japan, etc. But given his demonstrated political, diplomatic and technocratic skills, Roxas I think will come out the clean hero. If he cannot solve the problems, I wonder who can.

Let’s wish him luck.

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