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Rough Cuts | The vanishing railway dream

Sometime back in 2015 then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was reported in the papers as impatiently asking funding agencies like the World Bank to foot the bills for the implementation of a railway transport system to address the burgeoning vehicular traffic in the city expected to come within the next five years.

In 2016 the then mayor was catapulted to the Presidency of the Philippines. And true to his aspiration he included in his priority big-ticket projects in Mindanao a railway system that will connect the island’s main centers of economic development that include Davao, General Santos, Butuan, Cagayan de Oro, and even Zamboanga City.

In Davao City the railway system is touted as the ultimate solution to the worsening vehicular traffic. So when the former mayor assumed the Presidency his administration immediately rolled up its sleeves and started the works on the railway project with its Phase 1 covering the Davao Region. Planning and budgeting became the tune of the Department of Transportation (DOTR), the lead agency in the project implementation.

Whether it was by design or not that the first phase be done in the Davao area starting from Tagum City down to Davao City up to Digos City in Davao del Sur, we’d rather leave it to the cynics. And we were elated that such a project is undertaken first in areas that include Davao City.

Why, because we are one with the observation that indeed the traffic situation in the city could be worse in the timeframe projected by its former mayor and now President Duterte.

Admittedly though, we are not in agreement with the idea of having such an infrastructure project as the city’s top priority for addressing its traffic problem.

We also believe that while a railway system may be advantageous to the commuters, assuming that the fare rate would be much lower than the present rates of public utility jeeps and shuttle services, and passenger buses, it will also entail displacement of some people who are dependent on driving passenger vehicles for their livelihood.

In other words, a railway system in place could impoverish certain sectors of the population not just in the city but in some other parts of Mindanao. Hence we have this feeling that the government must see to it that it can provide alternative livelihood means to those drivers who would suddenly lose their job, and to jeep and shuttle bus operators who would find their units running empty because the majority would now be taking the train.

Yes, there may be many more people benefiting from a railway transport system. But we believe that it could be morally and ethically inappropriate that a system is put in place to the detriment of other sectors in society.

We also believe that if we think of a five-year period as the time-table for Davao City’s traffic situation to get worse, a railway transport system may not be the top priority solution.

What we think is best to the existing situation in Davao City is the opening of new diversion and peripheral roads; or even a coastal highway.

The reported second diversion highway, the feasibility study of which is being bankrolled by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), is one infrastructure project that is most beneficial to the city and its population.

As planned that the said inland highway will traverse the areas from Bunawan, Mahayag, Cabantian, Tigatto, cross the Davao River and climb up the Magtuod hills to Matina Pangi, then to Catalunan Grande, cross the Talomo River and up again to Catalunan Pequeno exiting to Toril and then to Sta. Cross. This new highway will indeed relieve the city’s downtown area of a substantial number of large vehicles including those that are privately-owned. The outcome is definitely a downtown Davao with vehicles running smoothly and almost accident free.

Why, it would just be a simple execution of policies regarding which vehicle goes to the city proper and which should not. The city can always adopt measures to ensure compliance by vehicle owners or drivers.

One such measure is by providing lateral roads from the new diversion highway leading to such important destinations as the F. Bangoy International Airport, the Sasa seaport and other nearby facilities as the TEFASCO sea terminal, the Sumifru port, and even the ageing Sta. Ana wharf.

Once the project is accomplished many cargo trucks including long body trailers going either to the north or south portion of the city will be diminished from the downtown roads. Add to the figure the number of small, privately-owned cars and motorbikes that will take advantage of the easy drive and you can see a traffic-free Davao City.

Unfortunately, President Duterte is now about to complete his fourth year in office. And as he was projecting, Davao City’s traffic is getting worse by the year since he completed his term as city mayor.

And his desired railway transport system? Well, funds are committed even as the amount needed for the first phase of the project is reported to be already available. But sadly, bureaucratic red tapes and some scheming genius in the administration are getting on the way right on the Phase 1 implementation of the railway project. Thus, four years into the Duterte administration the lead agency implementer is still fixing the railway route and even facing suits from influential land owners whose properties are affected by the project and the lack of foresight by its planners.

It’s a good thing that the lesser-hyped infrastructure projects of the government like the coastal highway, the new diversion road and other connector and relief roads in the hinterlands are moving quietly but consistently. In fact, the coastal road could be in service sooner, according to the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

In other words, it could be a blessing in disguise that the railway project intended to solve the traffic problem of Davao City was caught in “heavy traffic” of bureaucracy and ineptness of some people in the Duterte administration, and even by some local government officials.

But we are also happy that the Duterte presidency has shown interest on a new diversion highway and the coastal road. To us these could be the more ideal and even lasting and less costly solutions to Davao City’s traffic problem that is getting monstrous by the year.
But there is one thing we are afraid of. That is, that a railway system in Mindanao would not anymore be realized in the Duterte era. Or, it would not even come at all.

What with the devastation of the country’s economy brought about by the CoViD 19 pandemic!

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