THE METRO RAIL TRANSIT (MRT) Line 7 — a flagship project of the government — has overcome a major right-of-way obstacle that had forced its proponent, San Miguel Corp.’s railway unit, to defer completion date by two years to 2022, when President Rodrigo R. Duterte ends his six-year term.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Department of Transportation (DoTr) said two Quezon City courts issued orders for the government to take possession of a site eyed for the project’s planned depot in along Quirino Highway in Barangay Lagro, Quezon City, “which was found optimal for right-of-way implementability, asset constructibility, capital expenditure and operational expense efficiency, and operational reliability and maintainability.”

DoTr said it had offered to buy the targeted Quezon City depot site from owners led by “a major real estate development company at current market value, as appraised by a Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas-accredited independent property appraiser”.

The property owners refused DoTr’s offer, forcing the department and San Miguel unit SMC Mass Rail Transit 7, Inc. (SMRT7) — which is undertaking the project — through the Office of the Solicitor General to file expropriation cases just last Nov. 15.

DoTR said Transport Secretary Arthur P. Tugade approved the new depot site last June 29.

It replaces the original depot site in San Jose del Monte city, Bulacan which remains subject to a legal case after the property owner questioned the expropriation at the Malolos Regional Trial Court Branch 11. The government had challenged at the Court of Appeals a higher valuation for acquisition of the site from its owner that was mandated by Malolos Regional Trial Court Branch 11 in February last year, compared to what it argued is allowed by law. SMRT7, which is undertaking the project, said that valuation discrepancy would increase its required deposit for the project nearly ninefold to P598.905 million from P67.105 million.

The case in Bulacan has prompted San Miguel to move the project’s completion date to 2022 from 2020 originally, with the “first portion” — the stretch between the North EDSA common station for MRT-7, Light Rail Transit (LRT) 1, MRT-3 and the planned Metro Manila Subway and a station in Fairview — scheduled to open in 2021.

Transport Assistant Secretary Goddes Hope Oliveros-Libiran said the Quezon City site for the planned 20-hectare depot replaces the one in Bulacan.

Wala na ‘yung sa Bulacan. Na-stall ‘yun. May pending case ‘yun nasa Court of Appeals. Hindi kami puwedeng magsalita on the case (Forget the site in Bulacan. That plan is stalled. There is a pending case at the Court of Appeals. We cannot talk about that case),” Ms. Libiran said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Asked if the department still wants the site in Bulacan, Ms. Libiran replied: “Hindi na. Wala, kapag aantayin mo ‘yun it will take you forever. (No we will no longer pursue it. If you want for that case to be resolved, it will take you forever.)”

She acknowledged other pending right-of-way issues, but described them as “only minor” ones. “Ang alam ko meron pa, pero mga minor na lang mga ‘yun. Ang pinakamalaki kasi ang depot. (As far as I know, there are other right-of-way issues, but they are only minor ones. The biggest problem was the depot).”

DoTR said in its statement on Wednesday that “[w]ork on the depot formally started yesterday, 26 November 2019… after writs of possession issued by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 92 and 98 in favor of the Department of Transportation and its concessionaire, SMC Mass Rail Transit 7, Inc., were successfully enforced by sheriffs of the two courts”, adding that the Quezon City courts issued the writs on Nov. 22 and 25 after “nearly two years” of court hearings on the matter.

San Miguel shares gained 0.63% to P160 apiece at closing on Wednesday, riding a general rise at the Philippine Stock Exchange. It was trading down 0.13% at P159.10 apiece as of 11:36 a.m. Thursday.

In a mobile phone message on Wednesday, Ms. Libiran said that the courts’ decision removes the “major stumbling block” to the project.

“This development will allow us to finally start works at the depot. The depot is an integral part of any rail station, so now that the location has finally been settled, we are confident that the project construction will now push through without major stumbling blocks,” Ms. Oliveros-Libiran said in her earlier reply.

DoTR’s statement quoted Transport Secretary Arthur P. Tugade as saying: “The start of depot works signifies much more than a dot in the timeline of the project. It shows us that when the judiciary work hand in hand with the executive department, we are able to pick up speed in delivering infrastructure development to the Filipino people.”

The P62.7-billion MRT-7 project — which will run between North Avenue in Quezon City and San Jose del Monte city, Bulacan — has three components, namely: a 23-kilometer rail transit system with 13 stations; a six-lane highway between North Luzon Expressway and a planned Intermodal Transportation Terminal (ITT); and the ITT itself that can accommodate 200 buses at a time. Travel from one end to the other is estimated to take 34 minutes.

The Public-Private Partnership Center said on its Web site that the road component of the project will “divert northern provincial bus operations to San Jose Del Monte, thereby decongesting EDSA.”

Once operational, the MRT-7 is expected to accommodate an estimated 300,000-850,000 passengers a day, the DoTr said on Wednesday. The project was 49.15% complete as of October, DoTr said on Wednesday. — A. L. Balinbin