One of the issues President Duterte did not touch in his State of the Nation Address last Monday was the perennial problem of urban traffic congestion and improving the public transportation system in our major cities such as Metro Manila. He instead talked about promised government programs and his favorite topic, the war on illegal drugs. There was nothing earth-shaking with what he said, except to reiterate the programs he promised when he campaigned for the presidency in 2016.
The President basically followed the script and the speech was finished in 48 minutes without ad libs and his customary colorful language.
On the issue of traffic congestion and public transportation, it was left to the Department of Transportation to announce recently the suspension of the multi billion peso Bus Rapid Transit system or BRT for short that was planned for Cebu and the National Capital Region. The Cebu BRT project was a P10.6-billion project that would have run a total of 16 kms. It consists of 33 stations and a total of 176 buses to serve 330,000 passengers daily.
The NCR project, on the other hand, was supposed to consist of two components. The first was the Quezon City Memorial Circle to Manila City Hall which would have totaled about 12.3km passing Quezon Avenue and España. The other route was supposed to have been along EDSA costing about P37.8 billion.
Now, some House legislatures are asking the DOTr why the projects are being suspended since money for the projects have been made available after much lobbying was made by the department. There must be very good reasons why the projects have been stopped after embracing the idea wholeheartedly when the Duterte administration initially took over. The DOTr has now lost interest in the project.
The question is why and does it have a good point in suspending the Cebu and NCR BRT projects. From what has been reported in the papers, the projects were all ready to start but Secretary Arthur Tugade is the one who lost interest and implied that he seem to prefer rail transport over the BRT. When Traffic congestion started to worsen during the last administration, transportation officials came up with programs in an attempt to alleviate the problem.
The BRT was one of them and like many of the programs implemented, it was not a good plan like the trains bought from China worth billions of pesos that ended up being unusable. Putting up a BRT line along EDSA will only add to the traffic congestion along the road. What will happen to the thousands of buses and jeepneys plying the same route? Will they all be taken off the road? Also, since the BRT is essentially operated like a train, why put another train along EDSA. A BRT line in order to operate efficiently is better operated alone in a single route. Keeping the jeepneys along the same route as the BRT would be chaotic and not advisable. We do not know whether these are some reasons why Secretary Tugade is abandoning the project. It could also be that the BRT may be subjected to flooding because it is not elevated.
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Another factor that the government has to consider before introducing new transportation projects is to consider the effect of a new system to the way the government has tackled urban mass transportation over the decades. Before the Second World War, the principal urban mass transportation in Manila was the Tram operated by Meralco which started in 1905. After the City’s destruction during its liberation in 1945, the government never attempted to rebuild the system. Instead, the jeepney took over. There is also that 1936 Commonwealth Act known as the Public Service Law which is the basis of the existence of the current Land Transportation Franchising Regulatory Board.
The law has not been changed and is therefore badly in need of reform. With this law, the practice that has evolved is that almost all urban mass transportation in our cities are privately operated. We do not have anything like what we see when we travel overseas that the metro trains and the bus company catering to the public are operated by the city government like New York, Rome and others. During martial law, the government did operate the so-called love bus in Metro Manila and reduced the hundreds of bus operators to ten cooperative bus companies. The ten companies were assigned different and specific routes and the system worked very well but when the Cory government took over, it reverted to the old system wherein anyone wanting to operate a bus company even with only one unit can apply for a permit to operate.
This is the reason why we now see those thousands of buses along EDSA with hundreds of different operators. There is an urgent need to distribute bus routes to decongest EDSA. Yes, there is now a program to modernize the jeepney which is good but in addition, the new operators must be required to manage their companies efficiently and differently and not go back to the old system of operation.
Otherwise, traffic congestion will worsen because the new jeepneys are bigger and occupy more road space. This is just one of the issues in the jeepney modernization program. There are others. What is becoming clear is that there is a need to continue modernizing not only the transport systems but the laws that govern transportation operation. If this is not done, problems will persist and it will always be a challenge to undertake new transportation systems as the country moves forward. The public after all deserves more than the old jeepneys and tricycles.