By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, April 3, 2024; BusinessWorld

THE MARCOS administration has created an interagency panel to fast-track the acquisition of land for national railway projects, as Philippine infrastructure plans continue to be hounded by right-of-way (RoW) issues.

Under Administrative Order No. 19, which was signed on March 25, the Inter-Agency Committee for Right-of-Way Activities for National Railway Projects will “study and devise an efficient and collaborative mechanism to streamline the process of land acquisition necessary for the implementation of all railway projects.”

The panel will be chaired by the secretary of the Department of Transportation (DoTr) and co-chaired by the secretary of the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development.

Members of the committee include the departments of Interior and Local Government, Social Welfare, Environment, Finance, Budget, and Justice, as well as the Office of the Solicitor General.

The Philippine National Railway (PNR), the committee’s secretariat, is directed to provide administrative and technical support to the body.

The committee will submit to the President a bi-annual report on the status of RoW activities for ongoing railway projects. It will also take the lead in coordinating railway policies and programs among government agencies.

The panel will ensure “effective completion” of programs related to land acquisition and other right-of-way activities such as livelihood programs, income restoration, and resettlement. It may also act on issues or complaints raised to the body.

Terry L. Ridon, convenor of think tank InfraWatchPH, said the new committee could skip necessary social preparations as the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor (PCUP) was not included as a member.

“Conspicuously absent among the member-agencies is the PCUP, which is the lead agency for social preparation activities of urban poor communities affected by infrastructure projects such as railways,” he said in a Facebook Messenger.

“Without PCUP having a seat at such a high-level committee, the government may be blindsided on the direct sentiments of urban communities affected by railway projects,” he added.

The DoTr in a statement said the new committee is a “huge lift” for the Philippine railway sector.

“It will help us bring back the glory days of the Philippine railway system.”

The government’s infrastructure projects have been hampered by RoW issues that have delayed their completion.

Transport Secretary Jaime J. Bautista said in early March RoW issues are threatening the 2029 deadline for the completion of the 33-kilometer Metro Manila Subway Project.

While the construction of the subway tunnels began in January 2023, Mr. Bautista said last month the government had yet to secure 45% of the RoW.

The Marcos administration’s priority infrastructure projects for the transport sector also include the North-South Commuter Railway System, Mindanao Railway Project, and Philippine National Railway South Long Haul.

A 2016 law authorizes the government to acquire real property needed as RoW sites or for any National Government infrastructure project through donation, negotiated sale, expropriation, or any other mode of acquisition.

Randy P. Tuaño, dean of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, said the government should have included representatives from the private sector and civil society groups in the committee “so that issues raised by these sectors could be discussed.”

All concerned agencies and instrumentalities of the National Government, including state corporations and local government units, have been directed to support the order’s implementation.