Straight from the shoulder

The heady days of 1986 liberated the long muzzled press and gave second wind to many a dormant pre-Martial Law journalist's career. One of them was Louie Beltran. A big bear of a man, Louie hosted "Straight from the shoulder" a late night TV show broadcast on the Elizalde's MBC Channel 11 back in the late Sixties. Louie's humor, sarcasm, innuendo and biting wit both annoyed and endeared him to politicians of all stripes, NP, LP and closet CPP. Ninoy Aquino, Johnny Ponce-Enrile, Sonny Osmeña, Jovy Salonga, Gerry Roxas and Monching Mitra never failed to show up on his invitation.

The Invited

Being a straight talking journalist earned Louie an "invitation" from no less than the PC-Metrocom. But it was for him to reside together with known opposition characters in the Stockade on the night Martial Law was declared in 1972. After his release, Louie spent more time with his other passion; cocks - the feathered gaming kind. Because of his size, Louie had difficulty fitting into current PCMP cars. Only a used Mercedes Benz 200/8 would have the seat width, head room, seat track length to fit him and so it became his favorite car. If memory serves me right, Louie later had the Merc repainted in a Mercedes factory color, code DB 624 yellow.

JV, Joe and Doroy

The People Power revolution opened the sluice gates for all kinds of journalism. Gone would be the days when the Bulletin Today, Daily Express and the Times Journal would lord it over our morning coffee. No longer need we make do with Joe Guevara, JV Cruz and Doroy Valencia as opinion makers. The Inquirer and the Star, plus a reborn ABS-CBN would now take center change, and thus the spectacular growth of the free Press, especially the Yellow kind.

Digame vs. Oye!

Louie was side-splitting entertaining when he would take pot shots at the in-fighting factions within government, each crying for the ear of the widowed housewife turned President. He promoted the fantasy of a farcical oligarchy with behind the scenes shenanigans called "We bulong" [we whisper] - a word play on the motto of the RAM [Reform the AFP Movement] "We Belong". Protagonists and antagonists were identified as, "Kamag-anak Inc.", "coup-pals", the Council of Trent, Rasputin, Rambotito, the "Peninsulares" - those who answer the Palace phone with "Digame" and the "Insulares" - those who just say "Oye", among others.

Vested interests

Louie's not so subtle but consistent point was that the Aquino administration, during times of stasis, was frazzled with all those courtiers, predators and vested interests, camouflaging their selfish private agenda as an anti-Marcos and pro-Filipino cause. Not that different from the Marcosian crony capitalists. We all know the economic mess, infrastructure delays and policy gridlock that followed such a pandering to many, fragmented and even opposing selfish interests.

Good start

Year 2010: The early months of this Aquino administration showed a fair and just hand in honoring done deals as in the case of the approved toll rate increase of the revitalized SLEx. After all the heartaches MTD, the Malaysian SLEx rebuilder, experienced during the previous administration, the protests of grandstanding politicians and court cases filed, the toll hike was finally implemented. A government that believes in word of honor, in a “level playing field” is a good foundation to build the reputation of the PPP. Government can be trusted to be united and to move in one direction.

Applause, applause!

Recently, we witnessed a another fine example of Government coordination, damage control and rapid reaction/rectification. When HGC [Home Guaranty Corp.] announced that it would bid out air rights over the PNR rail right of way within Metro Manila, NEDA, DPWH, PNR, DTI and other government agencies stepped in to abort the said bidding. The bidding would have unraveled the PPP's integral packaging of the NLEx-SLEx connector. It would have been tough going for whoever would apply the Swiss challenge to Metro Tollways, unsolicited proposer of this vital cross town elevated tollway. It would have setback the PPP's reputation just as it is gathering steam.

Distrust the old

Its a national habit, save for ERAP's. As the case of every change of administration in this country, old contracts are reviewed and disbursements halted, leading to disastrous economic consequences to continuity that "Prof. of doom", UP Professor Benjamin Diokno, never ceases to remind us. Projects that were not perceived to be "clean" were scrapped or modified. Witness the aborted North Food Exchange-Northrail intermodal bus terminal between Bocaue and Balagtas, in Bulacan. What's left is the “R. Tiqui” flyover over the NLEx, with a half finished ramp leading to nowhere. Currently, its only used as parking for the LIDAR speed enforcement team of the TMC. Another black mark was the unpaid arrears to Stradcom, the outsourced electronic data processor of the LTO.

Euro fears and resignations

Then there's the pre-ordered French made hi-tech portable alloy Ro-ro ports which was cancelled. Our country's relation with FRAPORT, the German airport agency that assisted in building NAIA 3, remains adversarial. The last two would undoubtedly not endear us to European Union aid agencies, current Euro zone troubles notwithstanding. Doubts now creep into how this government does business and with it, the attractiveness of PPP. No wonder European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines President Hubert d'Aboville, has always, expressed concern, every time the Administration loses a Cabinet official to "poor health" or personal reasons; i.e. ex-DOTC Sec. Ping de Jesus, ex-NEDA Director General Dondon Paderanga and the first PPP Executive director, Phil Torio.

Empty cupboard

To be fair, when the new administration came into power, some line departments didn't have that many future plans for projects, having been underfunded and therefore neglected by previous administrations. Some departments relied on unsolicited BOT proposals from the private sector as such did not need financing from a national government in perpetual fiscal deficit. Some projects, like the Skyway Stage 3 from Buendia to Balintawak and the Ausphil Tollway-Universal LRT monster combination project of a hydro-electric highway, water-collector mains, La-Mesa Parkway, North Luzon East Expressway-LRT-7 were pre-approved during the Ramos administration, waiting for final feasibility studies and financing. Both have undergone revisions in the light of changing realities 15 years hence.

San Miguel, the magic partner

Understandably, projects that got the green light were those with the backing of financially muscular partners like San Miguel Holdings. San Miguel's entry into the TPLEx expressway undoubtedly pushed the project further and faster. Plans to upgrade the current single carriageway Lipa to Batangas section of the STAR tollway to dual carriageway moved forward when San Miguel became a partner. San Miguel's partnership with Citra Metro Manila Skyway is accelerating plans to extend the SLEx to Lucena, Skyway Stage 3 and Skyway Stage 4 C-6 expressway to Marikina. San Miguel's participation in Ausphil-Tollway has already resulted in the LRT-7 component being awarded to DMCI-Marubeni. Ayala's financial muscle no doubt won it the Daang Hari expressway concession, the first PPP project bided out.

Tainted by the GMA era?

But what about equally financially muscular Metro Pacific group? Its GMA era proposal to complete the MRT-LRT 1 loop was put in the back burner in 2011 when the DOTC wanted to prioritize the southward expansion of the LRT-1. Why not prioritize both? Metro Pacific then partnered with Ayala to improve its synergies for bidding. It would appear that many Metro Pacific plans and projects germinated under GMA's term - DMIA expansion, PLDT-Digitel merger, etc.-faced delays under the new administration. The foreign ownership structure of PLDT was also questioned. So far, Philex's oil exploration in the Reed Bank, any TV-5 acquisition or any MERALCO issue has not yet been put to this test.

Seamless for all

For the most part of a year now, the Palace has been sitting on a BCDA-MNTC agreement to integrate the operations of the SCTEx with the NLEx and SFEx. Common sense dictates that the 3 tollways - like Skyway-SLEx-STAR - be integrated into one operations zone, thus eliminating duplication of toll collection and other functions. DOTC, DPWH and NEDA support this agreement. Metro Tollways' MNTC, operators of the NLEx and SFEx in Subic, has been interim partners with BCDA for the past 3-years, ensuring the SCTEx maintains its world class status, making it a genuine poster boy for Public-Private Partnership. This dovetails nicely with Congressman Jack Enrile's proposal of making electronic tollway payments all around the country seamless and interoperable, as simple as calling Sun or Smart from Globe. This should put a smile on the face of Jean-Claude Neumann, director of Egis's Easy Trip, partner in MNTC and Ausphil Tollways.

What's wrong with the first two?

In the course of two years, the BCDA-MNTC agreement went through the wringer during GMA's term and again when the new BCDA team of the current administration took over. Why this vital integration remains stuck in the Palace is not transparent to all of us who look forward to queueing through less toll plazas and linking with the TPLEx to the north of SCTEx some day. What else needs a third vetting after the first two?

Dreams get in the way

As for the NLEx-SLEx connector, also proposed during GMA's term, the delays could come from the DOTC's 2011 railway project to stand side by side the elevated tollway. Having cancelled the North Rail project and still enraptured with dreams for a high speed railway, the DOTC now wants a NAIA-DMIA rail link to integrate both large airports. As proposed, the rail link has to hurdle a couple of design constraints. Not only does the railway cramp the ramps and carriageways of the tollway, crossing the Skyway to get to NAIA means bridging over the Skyway and into the path of planes taking off or landing. There is room for interconnection as Chairman F. Payumo of the BCDA intends to build a Monorail loop between Fort Global City, Taguig, Makati CBD, NAIA and LRT-1. As for financiers, there are all those gaming foreign investors who are happy to finance the NAIA expressway loop to link all their gaming palaces from NAIA to MOA by the Bay all the way up to the Coastal expressway.

Instant replay?

We wonder what the irreplaceable Louie Beltran would think of what the press today calls the undue influence of vested interests in this government by the KKK - "Kaibigan, Kaklase at Kabarilan" [friend, classmate and shooting partner], if at all true. Does history have to repeat itself? And just like in the past, we will again pay for it dearly in lost infrastructure investment opportunity and goodwill. Well, elections are just around the corner and if that fails, there's always EDSA people power and another trip to the bottom of the economic pile.