Philippines’ first subway project may face higher cost, delays

27, Mar. 2019

Artists’ image of a subway station in Manila. The Philippine government plans to complete construction of the country’s first underground railway within six years but critics say the schedule is unrealistic and the total cost may increase.
Artists’ image of a subway station in Manila. The Philippine government plans to complete construction of the country’s first underground railway within six years but critics say the schedule is unrealistic and the total cost may increase.

By Darlene Basingan

MANILA, NNA – The Philippines’ target of completing construction of its first underground railway within six years may increase the total cost, while the acquisition of the land for its stations could take longer than estimated, analysts and people familiar with the project say.

The government plans to open the first three stations of the 36-kilometer Metro Manila Subway in 2022, before the end of President Rodrigo Duterte’s term in office, with full operations beginning in 2025.

The ground-breaking for the 365-billion-peso ($7.1 billion) project, aimed at easing traffic jams in the capital, took place in late February, less than three months before congressional elections in May.

Cost of two-stage construction

Transportation analysts said that while it is technically possible to finish the subway by 2025, it would increase the total cost of the project.

“Technically possible, but more expensive and unnecessary: Dictated more by political bragging rights than public interest,” said Rene Santiago, president of consultancy firm Bellwether Advisory Inc.

Primitivo Cal, executive director of the Planning and Development Research Foundation Inc. of the University of the Philippines, agreed.

“It’s possible. But of course, if you split up [the construction into phases], the total cost will increase,” he said.

Japan has committed 104.53 billion yen ($942 million) worth of aid finance for the first phase of the subway project. A Japanese-Philippine consortium will build the first three stations and the depot as well as the Philippine Rail Institute at the depot.

Contractors concerned

A person familiar with the project, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, told NNA that the contractors “feel it is very difficult to complete the first three stations in three years by 2022.”

The contractors will try their best to finish work on schedule by working around the clock and reinforcing resources like equipment and manpower, the person said.

The construction of the first three stations would normally take four to five years, while building 15 might take seven to 10 years, the person said.

In addition, any delay in the process of securing the right-of-way would push back the construction timeline for the first three stations, he said. If the process goes smoothly, work can start in July or August, he added.

The contractors “are now very concerned about the issue of land acquisition being carried out by the Philippine government,” the source said.

Lawmakers question subway route

On the political front, some members of the House of Representatives are opposed to the subway route chosen by the government, saying it is the costliest of three options.

The route includes a station in Katipunan located inside Camp Aguinaldo, the country’s military headquarters. There are residential areas just outside the base.

Congressman Edgar Erice told NNA this week that the Katipunan station would affect residents more than the two other options.

Erice said the city council of Quezon City, the area where seven of the 15 stations will be located, might hold a discussion about the impact on residents of the subway construction, possibly after the May 13 general election.

He also said the Katipunan station has low potential ridership compared to the other two options.

Once the land directly above the subway line is secured, the government will still have to acquire some properties around the stations, Cal of the University of the Philippines noted.

The government also needs to develop the areas to encourage the use of the rail system, he said.

The budget for the subway project covers station plazas, sidewalk improvement and rehabilitation or building of new pedestrian walkways, according to the Department of Transportation.

Officials downplay concerns

Government officials told a news conference earlier this month that they were confident about completing the subway project on time, saying land acquisition would not be much of a concern.

Six of the subway’s 15 stations are located on government-owned land and in those cases, negotiations will be between the municipal and national governments, Transportation Department’s Undersecretary for Railways, Timothy Batan, said.

DOTr Assistant Secretary for Communications, Goddess Hope Libiran, told NNA that the Katipunan station is one of the six, so that there will be no need to acquire private properties outside the station.

The idea of building a subway system in Manila was first floated by Japan in the 1970s, but came to nothing as the then Marcos administration decided to build an elevated rail line instead.

With Metropolitan Manila suffering chronic gridlock that causes the economy to lose around 3.5 billion pesos a day, the government decided to push through with the ambitious project.