DOTr exec accuses 'higher ups' of derailing Mindanao Railway project

MANILA, Philippines – Transportation Assistant Secretary Mark Tolentino accused other officials in the Department of Transportation (DOTr) of "derailing" the Mindanao Railway project.

In a press briefing on Friday, May 18, Tolentino said that "those in the higher ups" want to borrow from foreigners for the entire project, which would delay the implementation of the project. The Mindanao Railway project already has an allocation of P36 billion in the 2018 national budget.

"Higher pa sa akin, hinaharang nila. Kasi gusto nila utangin 'yung buong Mindanao Railway. May budget na P36 billion [pero] gusto nila utangin sa isang foreign company," Tolentino said. (READ: China, Japan, Korea keen on funding Mindanao railway project)

(Those higher than me are blocking [the implementation]. Because they want to borrow funds for the entire project. There's a budget of P36 billion but they want to borrow from a foreign company.)

The Mindanao-born assistant secretary for railways also tagged the unnamed officials as "kontrabida" (villain). (READ: DOTr usec: Allegations over Mindanao Railway project 'false, uninformed')

'Unauthorized' presser

Earlier on Friday, Goddes Libiran, DOTr Director for Communications, sent a message to reporters that the department did not authorize Tolentino's press briefing.

Asked why it was unauthorized, Libiran said that Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade and Railways Undersecretary Timothy John Batan instructed that the briefing on the project be postponed.

"We expressly disallowed the presscon since [Secretary Tugade] and [Undersecretary] TJ instructed for the presscon to be postponed until after our funding and implementation strategy is firmed up based on an upcoming meeting among the Chinese Embassy, DOTr Sec Tugade, and DOF Secretary  [Carlos] Dominguez [III]," Libiran told Rappler.

"Usec TJ just requested Asec Tolentino to give deference to our principals, and not to preempt them with a presscon that will likely raise issues that we know will be the subject of the upcoming principals' discussion," she added.

Tolentino questioned the order, saying that he was the designated spokesman for the project.

"How can I, an assistant secretary appointed by the President, be unauthorized to speak? I have a special order that I am the spokesman of all issues about the Mindanao Railway," Tolentino said in a mix of English and Filipino.

The initial construction of the 2,000-kilometer Mindanao Railway project is expected to start by second quarter of 2018. Borrowing funds will only delay the project, Tolentino said.

Tolentino reiterated that the Mindanao Railway is the campaign promise of the President to spur development in his home region.

"Of all the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, I'm the only one from Mindanao....What we only want here is for it to be developed," he said.

In a message to Rappler, Libiran denied the allegations as "completely untrue."

Earlier reports showed that the first phase of the project will be implemented by the DOTr through local financing. This phase involves the establishment of a 102.28-kilometer commuter railway from Tagum City in Davao del Norte to Digos City in Davao del Sur.

The proposed 2,000-kilometer railway project is envisioned to connect key Mindanao cities including Davao, Zamboanga, Butuan, Surigao, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, and General Santos in order to spur economic development in the region. – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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