19 years and counting: The story of MRT-7

May 7, 2023

by Maricar Piedad

The Metro Rail Transit Line 7 (MRT 7) project was one of the hyped Infrastructure Flagship Projects (IFPs) under the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte. It is a Php77-billion unsolicited Public-Private Partnership (PPP) under the current control of the San Miguel Corporation (SMC). This project promises a 30-minute travel time from Quezon City to San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan through a 23-kilometer (km) light rail transit system. The MRT-7 has 14 stations placed along three major roads: Commonwealth Avenue, Regalado Avenue, and Quirino Avenue. It will run on a 3-car train configuration with a 350,000 daily passenger- capacity, which will be expanded to 800,000 later on. In addition to the rail system, the project has a 22-km asphalt highway component that will connect San Jose Del Monte City (also known as SJDM), Bulacan to the Bocaue Interchange of the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX).

The unsolicited PPP project is under the Build-Gradual Transfer-Operate and Maintain (BGTOM) structure with a concessionaire agreement (CA) of 25 years. Unsolicited project proposals are submitted by the private sector to the government, without formal solicitation or request. This means that the MRT-7 was not a priority project by the government and was not undertaken as a result of an assessment or study conducted by any government body.

SMC is funding the construction and will operate and manage the rail system once it becomes operational. Under the CA, the conglomerate will transfer ownership of the MRT-7 to the government after 25 years, but it can be extended to another 25 years if deemed fit by the two parties.

The project was supposed to be finished by 2019 but is still only half-completed. SMC has the full rights and responsibilities over the project yet does not publicly disclose all of its aspects.

Slow train coming’

The MRT-7 was first proposed by the Universal LRT Corporation (ULC) and received first-phase approval from the National Economic and Development Authority-Investment Coordination Committee (NEDA-ICC) in 2004. But it was only in 2008 that then Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) and the ULC signed an undertaking and a 25-year CA for the project.

Technically, the first phase of the MRT-7 project would have happened during the Arroyo administration. But it took more years after the signing of the CA in 2008 for construction to begin. The ULC had secured a financial undertaking only in 2016, towards the end of the Aquino III administration. Control of the MRT-7 project was eventually transferred to SMC after the conglomerate fully acquired ULC.

Construction started on 20 April 2016, 12 years after its first-phase approval, and was estimated to be finished in 2019 and be operational in 2020.

Four years after the target completion, the MRT-7 is still far from being finished. According to the PPP Center, the rail component of the project is at 62.2% completion, while the construction of its highway component has no definite status.

The now Department of Transportation (DOTr) has retracted its previous claims of an operational MRT-7 by 2022 and has shifted the full operation target to 2025. This is 21 years from the project’s first-phase approval and 9 years after the start of construction.

Oligarchs’ disputes and infringements

SMC has stated various reasons for the delay, mostly blaming right-of-way (RoW) issues along the roads and communities directly affected by the railway construction; the depot that has to be constructed; and the delay in the construction of the “common station”.

Since the project will run along major roads with established businesses and communities, RoW issues need to be addressed before and during the construction. The SMC partnered with the DOTr to secure RoW from affected individuals and communities.

In the original layout, the railway will pass through the Pangarap Village in Caloocan City, which has 40,000 residents occupying a 156-hectare land in barangays (Brgy)181 and 182. In 2010, Carmel Development Inc. (CDI), a company reportedly owned by the Araneta family, allegedly planned to develop Pangarap Village into a commercial district because of the area’s proximity to MRT-7. In 2014, CDI sent its guards to the community where they set up barriers and prevented vehicles from entering the village. These barriers resulted in power and water supply loss in the community, since meter readers were barred from entering. But the community prevailed when the Caloocan Regional Trial Court issued a Preliminary Writ of Injunction in 2016 to remove the barriers.1

Still, around 1,000 farmers and their families on an estimated 300 hectares of agricultural land in Bulacan will be displaced when the San Jose Del Monte station and the intermodal depot is built. Soldiers from the 80th Infantry Battalion (IB) are reportedly deployed in the area to guard the surveyors and engineers of the Hyundai Rotem-EEI consortium. The farmers are also being harassed by private guards of the Araneta Properties, the real estate company that claims ownership of the land.

The start of the construction of the depot, on the other hand, which is one of the key structures in this project, took a long time. It was supposed to be built in SJDM, but the DOTr and SMC faced a RoW issue with the landowner. The land was originally valued at Php200 per square meter, but the Malolos Regional Trial Court raised the value to Php1,800 per square meter. SMC contested the court decision and pushed the DOTr to settle with the Malolos court but eventually gave up.

SMC found a new land to acquire in Brgy Greater Lagro, Quezon City. In 2019, the Quezon City Trial Court issued a Writ of Acquisition to the DOTr for the 20-hectare land owned by Centuries Community Corporation (Century). But despite securing the location, the depot construction began only in May 2022, and the location it turns out sits on the La Mesa Watershed.

Lastly, the “common station” dispute. It is intended to be the terminal station located on North Avenue, Quezon City and will connect three railway lines – the LRT-1 MRT-3, and MRT-7. It was supposed to be built and operated even before the construction of MRT-7, but big corporations led by the country’s economic oligarchs fought over its construction. In 2009, SM Prime Holdings Inc. signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the government to name the common station SM North Edsa in exchange for a Php200-million grant for the project. But the DOTC then put the common station project in the Php64.9-billion contract for the LRT-1 operation and maintenance project bagged by Metro Pacific Investments Corporation (MPIC), Ayala Corporation, and Macquarie Infrastructure Holdings.2 The contest escalated when the original location of the common station in front of SM North Edsa was moved in front of the Ayala-owned Trinoma Mall. The squabble was hushed when the Duterte administration simply gave the green light for the construction.

The MRT-7 project was proposed as a solution to the worsening congestion and heavy traffic experienced by Filipino commuters, albeit being an unsolicited PPP project. But the delay itself has already caused horrendous traffic (especially along Commonwealth Avenue all the way to Quezon City center) and economic losses as a result, displacement of the urban poor and farmers, destruction of properties, and environmental degradation.

A little sacrifice by the public, but for whose benefit?

The government is asking for ‘a little sacrifice’ on the part of the public commuters purportedly for greater benefits later, such as easing of traffic congestion and improving public mass transport, among others. But the MRT-7 is an unsolicited PPP proposal, which means that the government has not been actually fully informed of so-called benefits. As it is now, the project has been causing so much traffic havoc every day in the last six years.

Since its construction started in 2016, the Commonwealth, Quirino and Regalado Avenues – all major highways – have been grossly affected. Some portions of the avenues were temporarily closed, U-turn slots were relocated, some footbridges were displaced or transferred to other areas, and the major Tandang Sora flyover was demolished.

Since Regalado and Quirino Avenues are smaller compared to Commonwealth Avenue, they became more crowded when the railway foundation was laid out. They have also lost one or two lanes to accommodate the railway.

But it is obvious at this point that the main intent of the project is to spur real estate and commercial development in the areas it covers. True enough, once word on the project was out, real estate developers already scrambled to secure land and property along its path. In SJDM, big real estate developers owned by elite families like the Ayalas, Villars, Aranetas and Sys have built their subdivisions and private establishments in anticipation of the completion of MRT-7. SM already opened its 60th mall in the city and Ayala Land has already established its Altaraza Town Center and estate development near the location of the SJDM MRT-7 station.

Traffic congestion along the path of MRT-7 is not only because of public utility vehicles not meeting the demand of commuters. Even before the project, SJDM was already accessible from Metro Manila through several bus and jeepney routes, but MRT-7 proponents did not recognize the poor road quality and low highway capacity as major problems contributing to the dire state of traffic and mobility in the area. They just went on with the expensive project, because obviously it is meant for the gentrification of the area for the profits of real estate and big businesses.

Environmental scandals

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reported that 1,858 trees planted along Commonwealth Avenue had to give way to the MRT-7 construction.3 A total of 1,215 trees were cut down already, of which, 525 trees were considered premium species and some even listed as endangered species. The remaining 623 were earth-balled, while some 20 trees were pruned. The EEI Corporation was required to replace each cut-down tree with 50 seedlings and earth-balled trees that would die with 100 seedlings. There is still no update if the EEI Corporation has done its part considering that it will take 20-30 years before a tree fully matures.

Meanwhile, the 20-hectare depot that SMC has acquired is located within the La Mesa Watershed reservoir. This area was full of trees but was cleared to give way for the depot. There is no official information released regarding the number of trees affected, but this raises concern since a watershed should be a protected area. There is no study showing how the construction and operation of the depot will affect the watershed; no clear statement that the project will not have any negative effects on the environment. Even the local government is mum about this.

In 2016, then DENR Secretary Gina Lopez canceled the Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) of Century for an area within the watershed. There was also supposed to be a housing project for employees of the Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS). Sec. Lopez cited that no area within the La Mesa Watershed should be developed as it will affect the quality of water for 12 million people living in Metro Manila. Still three years later, the DOTr allowed the use of the area for the construction of the depot.

Saying no to transport privatization

Public mass transport system is an essential component of economic development. Countries with developed economies have been practically delivered by efficient, reliable, affordable, safe and environment-friendly mass transportation systems, and vice versa. An efficient transport system should be designed so that the working people will reach their destinations in the shortest possible time and be economically productive. An efficient transport system should also ensure the fast delivery of goods and services across the country.

The importance of connecting SJDM to Metro Manila by an efficient transport system is unquestionable. Commuters have suffered enough from traffic congestion – indeed the reduction of travel time from the usual two to three hours to just 30 minutes will bring huge relief to commuters. But SJDM and its nearby municipality of Norzagaray are also agricultural and industrial areas. There are significant amounts of goods and services being transported daily.

Vegetable farmers from SJDM and Norzagaray travel to sell their produce in major markets in Quezon City. SJDM has several piggeries and poultry farms that provide daily supplies of meats and poultry products to Metro Manila. Norzagaray hosts two major cement plants in the country, namely Republic Cement and Holcim Philippines, which send out huge volumes of cement into the national capital region every day.

Will the MRT-7 answer our systemic transportation problems? Will fares be affordable and within reach by the ordinary commuters? Will the MRT-7 transport the farmers’ produce? At this stage, the project has so far turned out to be a gateway for big corporate elites to expand their businesses and gain more profits at the expense of the people’s welfare.

For decades, the Philippine mass transport system has been severely problematic, with the current transport chaos as just a symptom. This has been mainly because government’s transport policy is biased for privatized and commercialized transport that favors the country’s economic oligarchs and foreign investors. Yet, it is the people who will eventually pay for the huge infrastructure projects through their taxes and through higher transport fares.

For infrastructure projects to be truly beneficial, government should take the wheel, so to speak, and direct the transport system to genuinely serve a pro-people economic development. The starting point in this regard is a state that promotes people’s welfare over private profits.

1 https://caloocancity.gov.ph/250-mayor-oca-wagi-sa-korte-para-sa-pangarap-village

2 https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/money/companies/372930/sc-stops-dotc-lrta-from-building-mrt-lrt-common-station-in-front-of-trinoma/story/

3 https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/863807/1858-trees-must-go-for-mrt-7