Priority pain points in public transport


Sonny Coloma

On the same day that this newspaper headlined last week the naming of the next Transportation Secretary, a front-page photo also showed long lines of parked taxis that had stopped operating because of the unabated series of fuel price increases.

Transportation Secretary-designate Jaime Bautista assumes office at noon today with a plateful of important and urgent challenges. By dint of his track record as president of Philippine Air Lines and his decades of senior management experience, he is sufficiently prepared for the job. He would need the support of other branches and agencies of government, as well as the tolerance and understanding of the citizenry, in tackling long-standing pain points — such as chronic traffic congestion in the metropolis — that could only be alleviated.

Mobility is a vital aspect of economic recovery and concededly, the country’s public transport system has not kept pace with public demand. The series of lockdowns brought on by the pandemic has produced a mixed bag of gains and setbacks in public transport.

Focus on people-centric solutions tops the positive list.

Severe cutbacks in public transportation prodded many workers to use bicycles in going to work. Active transport has become an operative term. Transportation experts have proposed the integration of public and active transport. In this scenario, Juan de la Cruz could pedal his way to a bus or commuter train station, ride and get off, and reach his workplace by biking anew. In a manifesto at its launching last year, the Green EDSA Movement, a multi-sectoral advocacy group, declared: “Active transport should be promoted through the development of greenways, car-free zones, public open spaces, sidewalks, bike lanes, and bicycle-sharing services.”

EDSA is a major proving ground for the efficacy of transport solutions. As it is the main traffic corridor in Metro Manila, its constant upkeep in terms of utility and aesthetics deserves high-priority attention. It is also an ideal showcase for affirming the government’s transportation policy — adopted by the outgoing administration in 2017 — declaring the prioritization of people mobility over vehicle mobility.”

The bus carousel now plying the center lanes of EDSA and the proposed busway system is one of the important innovations introduced last year under the leadership of outgoing Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade. The EDSA busway system, advocated by the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) through its infrastructure committee headed by Eduardo Yap, emulates a best-practice solution that has been adopted in many progressive countries. Leading private corporations have already signified their willingness to sponsor the construction of commuter-friendly busway stations; only the imprimatur of concerned government agencies is being awaited.

Prior to the pandemic, the government also launched a public utility vehicle modernization program complemented by a service contracting program that involved a partnership between government and transport cooperatives. This program also addressed the limited vehicle capacity imposed at the height of the Covid contagion. While militant jeepney drivers’ organizations have opposed it, a limited study by Elsevier, a Netherlands-based research body, has pointed out that the impact of service contracting is “generally positive” in terms of increase in transport supply, social amelioration for transport operators and performance improvement. The new administration would be well-advised to ensure the continuation of this program through adequate budgetary support.

In crafting the Department of Transportation’s 2023 budget for submission to Congress in August, Secretary Bautista will be well-advised to tackle the issue of “low absorptive capacity” that has prompted both houses of Congress to trim its previous allocations. This is right up his alley as financial management is his forte.

High-profile ongoing public transport infrastructure projects include: the MRT-7 from Quezon City to San Jose del Monte City in Bulacan that is expected to be operational by December 2022; the Cavite extension of the LRT-1 line that is projected to be completed by 2024; the PNR North-South Commuter Railway project phase one from Clark to Malolos which will extend to Tutuban and up to Calamba; and the Metro Manila Subway project which will be partially opened in 2025 and could be completed in 2027.
In the water transportation sector, the priority items would be: strengthening the capabilities of the Philippine Coast Guard in performing maritime search and rescue, law enforcement, marine environmental protection and maritime security and safety.

Equally important is the Maritime Industry Authority’s effective performance as the single administration in the Philippines responsible for oversight in the implementation of the 1978 international convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) for seafarers, as amended. This is crucial in maintaining the country’s status as the leading source of skilled mariners and seafarers worldwide.

Secretary Bautista is most familiar with the challenges in the air transportation sector. This early, he has signalled his determination to raise public transportation in the country to global standards — an objective that deserves the citizenry’s support.