By Denise A. Valdez

SAN MIGUEL Holdings Corp. (SMHC) is all but certain to bag the contract for the P735-billion Bulacan airport project after its unsolicited proposal went unchallenged by the deadline to do so on Wednesday.

Giovanni Z. Lopez, the Department of Transportation’s (DoTr) bids and awards committee (BAC) chairman, said after a ceremony at the DoTr office that the notice of award is expected to be given in a week.

“Today was the opening of bids for the Swiss challenge… no one bought our bid documents… so no one submitted… which means we have to award the project to San Miguel,” Mr. Lopez said.

“But we still have to await the recommendation of the TWG (technical working group) within three days, and then the BAC will submit a recommendation to the head of agency, which is (Undersecretary for Aviation Manuel Antonio L. Tamayo) in this case, within five days, for the notice of award.”

After the notice of award, SMHC will have 20 days to comply with regulatory requirements such as submission of a performance security and a proof of commitment.

The performance bond will be at least two percent of the project cost if given in cash, at least five percent if through an irrevocable letter of credit and at least 10% if through a surety bond. Mr. Lopez said the bond may be a combination of any of the three.

Mr. Lopez said that if the post-bid process goes as planned, SMHC should be able to start construction of the airport next quarter.

“I think we can finish all the documentation processes by the last week of August until first week of September,” he added.

Ramon S. Ang, president and chief operating officer of SMHC parent San Miguel Corp., said in a statement: “We still have a long way to go, but with the continued support of government and everyone, we hope to get started working right away.”

The company wants to help decongest the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila by building a 2,500-hectare airport in Bulacan — provisionally to be called the New Manila International Airport — with four to six parallel runways and a terminal that will have an annual capacity of 100 million passengers.

Wednesday’s proceedings initially appeared to be headed for some complications, as Transportation Undersecretary for Planning Ruben S. Reinoso, Jr. said in a mobile phone message that the Public-Private Partnership Center, in a letter addressed to BAC Chairman Lopez that was received on Monday, asked “to stop Swiss Challenge.”

A Swiss challenge is a competitive process by which unsolicited proposals are opened to counterproposals, which the original proponent has the right to match.

The Swiss challenge for the Bulacan airport project began when bid documents became available on Apr. 22 for the price of P10 million.

But Mr. Reinoso said the Swiss challenge went on as “BAC decided there’s no legal basis for PPP Center to stop process.”

Mr. Lopez confirmed in a telephone interview that he received a letter from the PPP Center.

“Yes, I received the letter from PPP,” he told BusinessWorld when asked about such communication.

However, he said that while “they sent the letter to me” its contents were “highly confidential.”

Mr. Lopez said the BAC decided to proceed with the Swiss Challenge because it was “the legal thing to do,” adding that only a temporary restraining order from a court could have stopped Wednesday’s proceedings.

The PPP Center, however, denied that it had tried to stop the Swiss Challenge.

“In light of media queries, the PPP Center would like to clarify that it did not request the DoTr to stop the New Manila International Airport (Bulacan International Airport) Project,” the center said in a statement on its Web site.

San Miguel’s Mr. Ang said he “will ask DoTr” on necessary action steps regarding the PPP Center’s letter in relation to SMHC’s proposal.