By Denise A. Valdez

RAILWAY PROJECTS are taking center stage next year as the sector will account for bulk of the Department of Transportation’s (DoTr) proposed budget for 2020.

The department presented to the Senate on Thursday its P147-billion proposed spending plan for next year, where P108 billion will be spent on projects, of which 99% will be spent on railways.

The Senate Committee on Finance approved the budget, which will now be taken up at the plenary.

Approximately P106.7 billion of DoTr’s approved budget for projects will go to railways, followed by P507.5 million for the maritime sector, P346.5 million for the aviation sector and P101 million for roads. About P360.6 million of the budget will go to other projects.

“The reason for this budget is because we are aggressively expanding the railway network,” Transportation Undersecretary for Railways Timothy John R. Batan said at the hearing.

Railway projects to be undertaken next year include the North-South Commuter Railway (NSCR), Metro Manila Subway Project, Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT-3) Rehabilitation, Mindanao Railway Project, Philippine National Railway (PNR) South Long Haul, Light Rail Transit Line 1 (LRT-1) Cavite Extension and Subic-Clark Railway. Mr. Batan said construction of each of the projects is part of a plan to expand the country’s railway system, which will have a total length of 1,144 kilometers in 2022 from 77 km in 2016, consisting especially of LRT-1, LRT-2, MRT-3, PNR At-Grade, MRT-7, Metro Manila Subway, Subic-Clark Railway, NSCR, PNR Bicol and Mindanao Railway.

Within the same six-year period, the number of stations across all railway systems is targeted to increase to 169 from 59, the number of trains to 1,425 from 221, and daily ridership to 3.26 million from 1.02 million.

Itong 2016, 2017 and 2018, iginugol natin sa project approvals, procurement at pag-arrange ng mga loans [We spent 2016, 2017 and 2018 for project approvals, procurement and arranging loans]. ’Yung construction natin are mostly starting in 2019, 2020, continuing to 2021,” he said.

Senators also asked the DoTr on the MRT-3 rehabilitation and how soon commuters may expect ease in riding experience. Mr. Batan said repairs are scheduled for completion by July 2021, but at least nine of the 48 new trains from China will be gradually rolled out for regular operations starting the second half of 2020.

Meanwhile, Transportation OIC Undersecretary for Road Transport and Infrastructure Mark Richmund M. de Leon said the Public Utility Vehicle (PUV) Modernization Program may extend its deadline for jeepney phaseout beyond July 2020.

’Yung target kasi, ’yun ’yung [That target was] when we started this modernization program last 2017… But having said that, meron tayong mga [we’re encountering] challenges on financing, on the cost of the units, we will evaluate again based on these challenges,” he said at the hearing.

The government initially required jeepney drivers and operators to change their fleet of 15-year-old jeepneys into “environment friendly” units by 2020.

Mr. de Leon said there are 170,000 old jeepney units across the country today, and the goal is to have about 85,000 modern units to replace them by next year.

However, there are only 2,595 modern jeepneys operational today — more than two years since the launch of the PUV Modernization program.

“We support in general this modernization program. But I am not very encouraged by the answers that I hear today… In a week’s time, submit to us a revised target… what are your targets for the phaseout, and up to the end of this administration,” Senator Franklin M. Drilon told the DoTr.