LRT 1 privatization: public to bear costs of guaranteed private profits

Photo from Bulatlat.com

Photo from Bulatlat.com

It’s the same old story. We have seen it before in the privatization of the National Power Corp. (Napocor) where consumers are now being forced to pay more to shoulder stranded costs arising from sweetheart deals with private power generators. We have seen it in the privatization of the MRT where government has been insisting to hike fares to pay for financial obligations arising from guaranteed profits and debt payments. Both punish the public with exorbitant fees and drain the already scant resources of government.

The same fate awaits the Filipino people if the P60-billion privatization and line extension of LRT 1, the largest public-private partnership (PPP) project of President Benigno Aquino III to date, will not be stopped.

Those who are interested to look into the details of the LRT 1 privatization may download a copy of the draft 32-year concession agreement here. Scrutinizing the draft contract, we will see that despite the repeated denial by its officials, the Aquino administration will continue the usual practice of providing state guarantees to peddle its privatization program. And as you might expect, such guarantees will come at the great expense of the public.

Top-up provision

If the private operators of the MRT were granted with a guaranteed 15% return on investment (ROI) annually, the winning bidder for the LRT 1 privatization will enjoy a so-called top-up subsidy. The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), the agency in charge of LRT 1 privatization, explained that the top-up provision will entail the government to shoulder the difference between the pre-approved fares contained in the concession deal and the actual fares that authorities will be able to actually implement.

This is essentially a profit guarantee for the private operator and can be found in Section 20 (on Concessionaire Revenues) of the draft concession agreement for LRT 1 privatization. Under the draft contract, the concessionaire will be entitled to a notional fare (Section 20.3.a) that shall be agreed upon by the government and the winning bidder to ensure the commercial profitability of the system. The notional fare would be periodically adjusted (read: increased) during the entire 32-year concession period. Section 20.4.a of the draft contract, meanwhile, states that: “In any period, where the Approved Fare is lower than the Notional Fare, the Grantors shall pay to the Concessionaire a Deficit Payment (“DP”), to reflect the difference between the Notional Fare (NF) and the Approved Fare (AF).” The Grantors refer to the DOTC and the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA).

Concretely, this means that if the DOTC or LRTA could not implement a certain fare level for LRT 1 as committed in the concession agreement due to strong public opposition and/or regulatory, legislative or judicial intervention, government is obliged to pay the private operator its expected revenues from such fare level. Government, of course, will be using public money. In other words, the public will not escape the greed of the private operator – whether as LRT 1 commuters (who will shoulder the fare hike) or as taxpayers (who will bear the top-up subsidy). Needless to say, prospective LRT 1 operators that include San Miguel Corp. Infra Resources, Inc.; Light Rail Manila Consortium of Manny V. Pangilinan and the Ayala group; DMCI Holdings, Inc. of the Consunji group; and the foreign consortium MTD-Samsung of Malaysia and South Korea are pleased with the deal that they will be competing to secure from the Aquino administration.

Regulatory risk guarantee

The top-up subsidy in LRT 1 privatization is a form of regulatory risk guarantee that the administration’s economic managers first disclosed in September 2010. The announcement was made ahead of the President’s working visit to the US where he promoted his PPP program to American investors. Two months later, Aquino officially declared the scheme as policy during the PPP Summit, which the government organized to jumpstart its privatization initiatives. In his speech, the Chief Executive said:

“The government will provide investors with protection against regulatory risk. Infrastructure can only be paid for from user fees or taxes. When government commits to allow investors to earn their return from user fees, it is important that that commitment be reliable and enforceable. And if private investors are impeded from collecting contractually agreed fees – by regulators, courts, or the legislature – then our government will use its own resources to ensure that they are kept whole.”

While providing profit guarantees is standard practice in privatization, the regulatory risk guarantee is unique to the Aquino administration. His economic managers designed the scheme so as to avoid criticisms that he is repeating the same disadvantageous perks given to PPP investors in the past that caused the financial bleeding of government such as in the case of Napocor and MRT. But the top-up subsidy or regulatory risk guarantee is essentially the same as the take-or-pay provisions in previous PPP deals. Government and the end-users will still assume all the risks associated with operating the infrastructure while the profits of the private operator are secured.

More public debts

Where will government get the funds for the LRT 1’s top-up subsidy? To be sure, it will not come from disposable funds or public savings as the national budget deficit is still huge at P127.3 billion while the national government remains heavily indebted with more than P5.38 trillion in outstanding debt as of November 2012.

Like his predecessors, Aquino will borrow more to finance his PPP program including the profit guarantee for participating private corporations.  The National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) had earlier announced that government will tap multilateral institutions to provide for the guarantees so that when PPP investors face risk, they can still “be paid fast and immediately”. One of the multilateral lenders that made a pledge to fund the government guarantees on PPP projects was the World Bank which issued the commitment during the 2010 PPP Summit. Incidentally, the World Bank through its investment arm International Finance Corp. (IFC) is the transaction advisor of the DOTC and LRTA in the LRT 1 privatization.

Undermining check and balance

Aside from the direct financial burden that will hit the people, the regulatory risk guarantee will also further undermine the already weak system of supposed check and balance through the use of regulatory authorities, courts or Congress as a venue to protect public interest. For example, to prevent the implementation of an LRT fare hike, the people may seek relief from the Supreme Court (SC) through a temporary restraining order (TRO). The DOTC and LRTA would then be prevented from implementing the fare increase. However, the private LRT 1 operator could still collect the revenues from the fare hike through government-guaranteed Deficit Payments thus effectively negating the intervention of the High Court.

The regulatory risk guarantee was designed precisely to protect the commercial interests of the private business undertaking PPP projects from such outside intervention. Economic managers behind the regulatory risk guarantee have cited the case of the South Luzon Tollway Corp. (SLTC), the private operator of the South Luzon Expressway (Slex), which the SC stopped in August 2010 from implementing a more than 250% toll hike already approved by the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB).  Bayan Muna party-list congressman Teddy Casiño also filed a House resolution seeking for a suspension of the toll increase pending a legislative inquiry.

In reality, while DOTC officials try to differentiate the LRT 1 privatization’s top-up subsidy from the controversial guaranteed ROI present in earlier PPP projects, it appears that the former is even more favorable to the private concessionaire (and therefore more disadvantageous to the public) than the latter. The 250% Slex toll hike, for instance, arose from the guaranteed 17% ROI for SLTC contained in its 2006 Supplemental Toll Operation Agreement (STOA) with the TRB. But such guaranteed ROI became meaningless when the SC issued its TRO (although eventually lifted after more than two months). With the top-up subsidy, such risk of fewer profits due to an SC TRO or any outside intervention is eliminated.

More profits through commercial development

On top of its revenues and profits from fares and guaranteed periodic fare hikes, the winning LRT 1 bidder will also enjoy additional cash flows from project land and commercial development as contained in the draft agreement’s Section 11.4. In Section 20.7.a on Commercial Revenue, the deal further stipulates that “The Concessionaire shall be entitled to make arrangements for and charge for and collect the Commercial Revenue generated from the Project subject to Relevant Rules and Procedures.”

The development and lease of commercial spaces on LRT 1 stations and depot as well as revenues from advertising could be a potential source of income for government that could be maximized instead of resorting to steep fare hikes and/or privatization. The country’s LRT and MRT system has very low non-rail revenues which include earnings from commercial development and advertising. According to a 2007 study by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) cited by Senator Francis Escudero, the non-rail revenues of the LRT is equivalent to a paltry 2.6% of total revenues while neighboring countries get more than 20% from advertising and commercial leases. Clearly, there is much room to generate more revenues from commercial development for government if it will retain the LRT 1. Unfortunately, such potential source of income will also be transferred to a private business under privatization.

No need for privatization

The Philippines is among the first Third World countries to implement massive privatization of infrastructure development and operation. Early efforts were set off by conditionalities attached to loans from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in the 1980s and 1990s. Among the big-ticket items already privatized are the Napocor assets, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), the MRT, super highways like Slex, etc. Through the years, the people have been subjected to soaring and exorbitant user fees charged by the private concessionaires. Meanwhile government debt and deficit continued to balloon ironically due to, among others, privatization deals that were pursued supposedly to ease the fiscal pressure on public coffers.

Unfortunately, the Aquino administration’s PPP program will continue the long discredited and proven flawed policy of privatization such as its ongoing efforts to privatize LRT 1. Government could not even find a compelling justification to push for LRT 1 privatization. Unlike the heavily indebted Napocor and MWSS, for example, the LRTA – government operator of the LRT system – is at least generating enough revenues to finance its operation and maintenance (O&M) requirements. In 2012, the LRT 1’s gross revenues even increased by almost 10% while its farebox ratio – the proportion of fare revenues to total O&M expenses – improved from 1.10 in 2011 to 1.31 last year.  A farebox ratio of 1.0 means that fare revenues can cover 100% of O&M costs. Certainly, improving, modernizing and extending the system to Bacoor, Cavite would require additional investments and this is where the national government should step in by generating the needed funds.

Aquino could not argue that the government does not have the finances to make such investment thus the need for privatization. But if government is willing to incur more debts and guarantee the profits of whoever will win the LRT 1 project, why can’t it make the necessary investments such as through bilateral loans under concessional terms? When Malacañang was insisting on increasing the fares for LRT and MRT, its core argument was that government could no longer supposedly subsidize the system. Yet it is willing to subsidize the profits of the LRT 1 operator?

LRT 1 as a mode of mass transportation is a public investment imbued with public interest. It was never designed and intended to squeeze profits from commuters but to provide a reliable, efficient and affordable system of transportation for workers and employees, students, the self-employed, etc. Its true measure of viability is the social gains it creates for the people and the economy and not the private profits for the Ayalas and the Pangilinans, the Angs and the Cojuangcos, and their foreign partners. There’s no need to privatize it. (End)

LRT, MRT fare hike: no other recourse but to protest

Today’s (February 4) public consultation on the LRT and MRT fare hike organized by the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) and the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) confirmed two important issues.

First, that the fare hike is indeed meant to pass on a bigger share of the debt burden to LRT and MRT commuters. The presentations of the technical staff of the two government agencies confirmed, in so many words, what we have been saying all along. Current fares are enough to cover the core expenses of operation and maintenance. But the onerous terms contained in the contracts created huge and even unnecessary debts for government.

Download the Powerpoint presentations of the LRTA here and the DOTC here.

Consider, for instance, the slides below which I lifted from the Powerpoint presentation of the DOTC on MRT. The first slide shows that the total income of the MRT in 2010 was P1.916 billion, of which P1.904 billion were generated from passenger fares.

However, as shown in the next slide, MRT expenses reached P8.52 billion during the same year which the DOTC said resulted in a government subsidy of P6.6 billion to bridge the shortfall in revenues (that was only P1.92 billion).

The next question is what makes up the P8.52 billion in expenses? The third slide below breaks down the P8.52 billion (the figures in the slide add up to P8.52 billion) and shows that operating costs comprise only 7.6 percent of the total and maintenance costs comprise only 13.9 percent. A huge 61.1 percent represents the Equity Rental Payment, which refers to DOTC payments for the 15 percent return on investment (ROI) that government guaranteed private investors in their Build Lease Transfer (BLT) agreement. Another 13.6 percent represents debt payments that government also guaranteed in the BLT.

The LRTA presentation on LRT 1 and 2 tells the same story about the so-called losses and subsidies that government wants to reduce by making commuters pay more. The slide below shows that the consolidated revenues of LRT 1 and 2 in 2010 was P3.089 billion but spent P2.928 billion for operation expenses. The LRTA also spent P3.556 billion for interest payments and others resulting in a net loss of P5.902 billion.

Add to these expenses the amortization of principal worth P2.341 billion and capital expenditures of P648 million, as shown in the slide below, further pushing the LRTA deficit in 2010 to P8.927 billion, which government claims is the cost of subsidy. In other words, of the P8.927 billion in so-called subsidy, P5.269 billion or more than 59 percent represents interest and principal payments for loans.

If you consider that almost 8 out of 10 LRT and MRT commuters are ordinary workers and employees and students, passing on an increasing portion of these debts, which include onerous loans, through a fare hike is a major, major injustice.

Secondly, LRTA administrator Rafael Rodriguez also confirmed that the public consultation is optional and therefore has no real bearing on the decision of Malacañang to increase the fare in LRT and MRT. This means that despite the opposition of those being consulted, students in this particular case, the LRTA and DOTC, as ordered by President Aquino, can still proceed with the fare hike anyway.

The consultation ended with the expected “We will study your concerns”, which was the gist of the closing statement made by DOTC Undersecretary for Rail Transport Glicerio Sicat. He also said that they will consider the option of lowering the increase and giving fare discounts because of the concerns raised by the students. This, however, dismissed altogether the issues of onerous debts, mass transport as public service, privatization as the driving motive behind the fare hike, and other major policy issues that were raised during the open forum.

Therefore, the commuters have no other option now but to continue and further intensify the protests until the Porsche-driving President backs down on his decision to raise the fares.

Public consultation on LRT/MRT fare hike starts today as Pangilinan offers to buy MRT for $1.1B

Servicing debts through higher user fees will cancel out the social and economic gains from LRT/MRT

One of the most basic questions that we have been asking DOTC and LRTA officials is what constitutes their estimated full cost fare of P35.77 for LRT 1, P60.75 for LRT 2 and P60.03 for MRT. Sadly, we have not been given a detailed and exact answer (the closest is the rule of thumb that 85 percent of cost in large infrastructure projects is made up of debts) in our several dialogues with them. Even the documents that have been given us do not provide the answer. Thus, we have only made assumptions on what comprises the full cost fare (for instance, read here and here) based on data made available to us by the authorities.

The full cost fare is one issue that we hope to finally get a detailed answer from the LRTA and DOTC in the public consultation on the LRT and MRT fare hike today (February 4) and tomorrow. (Bayan and other groups are participating in the consultation. You may download Bayan’s position paper, which will be submitted to the LRTA during the consultation, here.) If you’re wondering why this is so important, it’s because the crux of government’s argument for a fare hike is that they could no longer continue “subsidizing” the gap between the current fare and the supposed full cost fare.

The latest batch of documents that we were able to get from the LRTA yesterday through its corporate secretary Atty. Hernando Cabrera still does not give the answer despite our very specific request. The documents include, among others, the breakdown of subsidies that the LRTA received from the national government from 2006 up to the approved amounts for 2011. These subsidies total P12.85 billion but are for expansion projects and, I assume, not the subsidies that the LRTA and DOTC refer to when they computed the full cost fare. Or I might be wrong. And if this is the case, transport officials will have more explaining to do – why will they charge to the commuters the cost of expansion projects? Anyway, this also shall be brought up during the consultation. (See Table 1)

Another is the income statement of the LRTA from 2006 to November 2010 (the 2009 and 2010 figures are unaudited). The income statement supports our contention that what the Aquino administration wants to pass on to the commuters is the debt burden of the LRT and MRT and not simply the shortfall in the costs of maintaining and operating the trains. For instance, the total rail (from passenger fares) and non-rail (from rental, advertising, etc) revenues of the LRTA from January to November 2010 is P462 million more than what it spent for operation and maintenance (O&M). Revenues from passenger fares alone are P272 million higher than O&M. (See Table 2)

Interest payments and bank charges, on the other hand, reached P1.72 billion during the said period. Amortization, bad debts, and others added another P955.32 million to the expenses of the LRTA. These expenses offset the rail and non-rail revenues resulting in net losses for the LRTA of some P2.22 billion. But as I have repeatedly argued, these are not actually losses in the business sense but public investment. They are loans that government borrowed in order to enable the economy and the people achieve new or additional capability. Servicing these debts should be done through taxes (and if they’re onerous like in the case of MRT, should be renegotiated) and not through higher user fees which what government plans to do. Servicing these debts through higher user fees will cancel out the social and economic gains that the LRT and MRT create.

Meanwhile, it seems that the fare hike, which could reach as much as 100 percent, and the President’s offer to guarantee so-called regulatory risks for major public-private partnership (PPP) projects have succeeded in stoking investor appetite in LRT and MRT privatization. Just three days ago, news came out that the Metro Pacific Investments Corp. (MPIC) of Manny Pangilinan has already formally written Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima offering to buy government’s 71 percent stake in MRT for $1.1 billion. MPIC already controls 29 percent of MRT which it bought from Fil-Estate Corp.

Pangilinan’s bid is indeed tempting for the cash-strapped Aquino administration since the offer is reportedly enough to settle government’s outstanding debt in MRT. But it is bad news for the commuters who will ultimately shoulder this debt through even more exorbitant fares in the future.

MPIC itself reportedly said in its letter to Purisima that fares could go up to as high as P100 if government will bundle MRT and LRT 1 for privatization because the investor will have to pass on the cost of servicing the lines’ debt obligations of about $2.6 billion to the commuters.

DOTC executive report on LRT/MRT fare hike: some initial points

DOTC study confirms that the LRT/MRT fare hike is meant to bolster Noynoy's public-private partnership (PPP) scheme

The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) has provided a copy of the Executive Report on LRT/MRT fare restructuring. They also sent Chapter 8 of the Mega Manila Public Transport Study of 2007 which details the profile of LRT/MRT users.

This report is supposedly the same document presented to Pres. Aquino and his Cabinet economic cluster and became the basis for the Executive’s decision to increase the fare in LRT/MRT by as much as 100 percent. It validated the main points that we have already raised on the fare hike issue. For instance, it confirmed that the fare increase is meant to attract private investors. The report said that: “The proposed LRT fare adjustment is expected to… send clear signal to private sector investors that regulatory risks will be minimized in future public-private partnership projects”.

(You may download the Executive Report here and the Transport Study Chapter 8 here)

Social and economic benefits

Dated October 27, 2010, the report noted that although not profitable, the LRT and MRT play a vital social and economic role. In its opening paragraph it said: “Most urban railway systems in the world are not financially viable, but are implemented for their socio-economic benefits. Our Manila Light Rail Transit (LRT) systems promote the use of high-occupancy vehicles, thereby reducing traffic congestion on the corridors served, local air pollution and greenhouse gases emissions. Besides the substantial savings in travel time cost of LRT riders, the LRT systems reduce infrastructure investment in Metro Manila road expansion”. (emphasis added)

However, these socioeconomic benefits were not factored in by the DOTC study in determining the need for a fare hike. For instance, the savings of government from less air pollution and GHG emissions (i.e. public health budget) and less pressure for road expansion (i.e. public infrastructure budget) should have been computed to get the net losses or even gains from operating the LRT/MRT. The economic value accruing from reduced traffic congestion and considerable savings in travel time cost should have also been calculated to know additional potential benefits for government such as increased tax revenues.

Farebox ratio

Instead, the study merely looked at the cost of operating the LRT/MRT system which is mainly financed through passenger fares, government subsidies, and commercial development at stations and advertisements. It said that the farebox ratios or the proportion of the fare revenues to the total operating and maintenance (O&M) expenses are “projected to fall below 1.0”. This means “greater government subsidies to cover O&M costs”, said the study. It estimated that without a fare hike, government will be forced to increase its subsidies from P13.85 billion in 2010 to P17.06 billion this year.

A farebox ratio of 1.0 means that fare revenues cover 100 percent of O&M. The study did not say the basis of its projection that the farebox ratio will fall below 1.0. But in the past four years, the farebox ratio has averaged 1.39 for LRT 1 and 1.01 for LRT 2 which means that collections from passengers cover more than 100 percent of O&M. This provides more statistical evidence to our argument that fare revenues can cover O&M but the total costs are bloated by debt.

Non-rail revenues

The study also admitted that “Compared with urban railway lines in neighboring countries, our LRT lines are not generating substantial revenues from commercial development and advertisement”. But the DOTC did not further explore the option of raising collections from tenants and commercial establishments and advertisers that use the railway infrastructure. A study by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) disclosed that LRT’s non-rail revenues comprise a paltry 2.6 percent of total revenues. In neighboring countries, non-rail revenues account for 20 percent.

I asked a DOTC official why increasing the non-rail revenues to at least approximate the 20 percent benchmark is not being seriously considered. He said that substantially increasing the non-rail income of LRT/MRT will require some investment from government to develop commercial spaces. Put another way, government chose the easy route by placing more burden on commuters through a fare hike.

Alternative transportation

The study said that minimum wage earners are among the most affected groups by the proposed fare increase. But it assumed that Minimum wage earners will likely shift to cheaper alternative modes such as jeepneys and regular buses”. Under the new fare structure, regular and aircon bus fares will be lower than an LRT/MRT ride unlike today where it is cheaper to take the train. This was actually used as one of the justifications for the fare hike. For government, it is unreasonable that the fare in LRT/MRT which is a more efficient mode of mass transportation is cheaper than the fare in public buses and jeepneys.

But the DOTC failed to mention that the fare in road-based public transport modes has been increasing due to unabated oil price hikes and failure of government to stop the overpricing of the oil companies. Also, following government’s logic, does it mean that every time private jeepney and bus operators asked for a fare hike because of high pump prices, the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) will also have to automatically increase LRT/MRT fares?

Impact on commuters

Aside from minimum wage earners, the study said that the fare hike will also heavily affect “students who are not granted fare discounts on LRT lines”. It claimed, however, that such impact “could be eased by the grant of 15-20% fare discounts”. As for MRT users, the DOTC said that while they face the steepest fare hike, “they are expected to afford the increase in fare with their average personal monthly income of P13,560 or 1.5 times the minimum wage in Metro Manila”. But still, fare discounts and the relative capacity of commuters to afford the higher fares do not legitimize the unwarranted fare increase.

The overall ridership of LRT/MRT is characterized by a high level of low-income and vulnerable groups that makes the fare hike anti-people. The Mega Manila Public Transport Study says that 68.1 percent of LRT/MRT users during weekdays earn below P10,000 monthly and a significant 15.3 percent earn nothing at all. Ordinary employees/workers comprise 48.8 percent of LRT/MRT ridership during weekdays while students account for 31.5 percent. Unemployed workers account for 9.5 percent. (See Charts)

MRT commuters face 222 percent increase in debt servicing thru fare hike

The long and short of the MRT/LRT fare hike is that Noynoy wants the commuters to directly shoulder an even larger portion of the debt burden

In the past two weeks, I have talked to some officials of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) on the issue of the impending fare hike in the LRT and MRT. I have also asked for documents including the rail study that the department conducted which was used as the basis for the fare hike. They have yet to provide the documents although they have repeatedly assured me they will do so soon in the spirit of transparency.

(Download Bagong Alyansang Makabayan’s “Five reasons why we oppose the LRT/MRT fare hike” here and discussion guide here.)

But while I have not yet seen the documents explaining the details behind the fare hike, I have confirmed at least one important fact thru my conversations with the DOTC officials. This is the issue of debt, which I argued in a previous post is the biggest reason behind the so-called losses of government in the MRT operation. The long and short of the fare hike is that the Aquino administration wants the 1.2 million daily commuters of the MRT and LRT, of whom  7 out of 10 earn less than P10,000 a month said one study, to directly shoulder an even larger portion of the said infrastructures’ debt burden.

The rule of thumb for large infrastructure projects like the LRT/MRT is that 85 percent of the total cost represents debt, said one DOTC official. This means that 85 percent of what government claims is the actual cost of an MRT ride, which is about P60, accounts for the debts incurred by the private consortium that built the infrastructure.  Without the debt, the cost of a train ride in MRT will turn out to be just P9, even higher than its current minimum fare of P10.

In other words, the present revenues of the MRT as well as of the LRT 1 and 2 could not only easily cover their operation and maintenance costs but even pay for an already significant portion of the debts. If the provisionally approved new rates will be implemented, commuters will be shouldering a higher portion of the MRT/LRT debt servicing. At present, each commuter already shells out an average of P3.30 to as much as P8.83 per train ride for debt payments. With the fare hike, the average amounts will grow by 54 percent (in LRT 1) to a staggering 222 percent (in MRT)! (See Table below)

But why is the issue of debt important? Isn’t it reasonable for the commuters to shoulder the cost of building the infrastructure which was funded by foreign debt?

In the case of the MRT, the original proponents were private corporations that formed a consortium – the Metro Rail Transit Corp. (MRTC). I have already pointed out how these investors made a killing on the MRT due to their interlocking interests with the foreign and local banks that financed the project. They also borrowed in near commercial rates, which a DOTC official I spoke to said could have been avoided if the government was the proponent since it can avail of soft loans. Payments for these onerous debts are being shouldered by the commuters and taxpayers.

The issue of debt also disproves the claim of the Aquino administration that there is a need for a fare hike because government is losing money. Such claim misleads the people into believing that MRT/LRT commuters pay below the actual cost of operating and maintaining the rail systems. As I showed earlier, they are paying even more than the cost of operation and maintenance. Government is losing money due to onerous contractual and debt obligations.

Furthermore, it is not unusual for state agencies managing public infrastructure like the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA), which operates LRT 1 and 2, to be in the red because their performance is measured not in narrow financial terms but through the net social and economic benefits they bring. The new capability that results from public infrastructure such as improved mobility of the economy’s workforce, for instance, far outweighs what government deems as its “losses”. These losses are actually not losses in the business sense but public investment that go into achieving economic efficiency and improving the overall living condition of the people.

By placing additional burden on commuters to settle the debts of the MRT/LRT, government is abandoning its obligation to provide the infrastructure needs of the people and the economy. The Aquino administration tries to conceal this dereliction of duty by peddling the twisted logic that it is unfair for Mindanao taxpayers to subsidize the MRT/LRT users in Metro Manila.

The Filipino people are paying for the debts of the MRT/LRT in the same way that we are paying for the debts incurred to build infrastructure in Mindanao and elsewhere in the country. If Aquino is sensitive to the needs and interests of the people, he should be lessening, not intensifying, this burden. One way is to renegotiate with creditors – an option that even some technical people in the DOTC recognize as legitimate, particularly in the case of MRT – to reduce the impact on government’s scant resources. The country has so many odious debts dating back from the Marcos dictatorship up to the Arroyo government (for instance, read here) that a leader with strong political will and genuine concern for the people would work hard to abrogate.

There is neither need nor urgency to increase the fares in MRT/LRT. If Aquino’s economic managers will insist that there is because of the precarious fiscal situation, then instead of unjustly burdening the people, they should advise the President to stop bailing out transnational corporations (TNCs) like what he did in the case of the Pagbilao coal-fired power plant which saved Japanese giants Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Marubeni Corp. from paying P6 billion in taxes.  Or they can tell the Chief Executive to stop giving investors more state guarantees, which will be taken from the people’s money, such as the regulatory risk insurance Aquino promised to prospective participants in his public-private partnership (PPP) scheme.