Honks, hisses as PHL attempts modern public transportation

In Photo: A traffic enforcer assists motorists and commuters on Aurora Boulevard in Quezon City.

THE government’s thrust in modernizing public transportation in the country to gain access to reliable transportation may be well and good, but for ordinary drivers, it will be a hell lot of a burden to bear.

Jeepneys fill a street while waiting for their turn to cross Aurora Boulevard in Quezon City.

Often described as a progressive transportation agenda, the modernization of public-utility vehicles in the Philippines is a six-year program that has multiple facets and, when completed, will help Filipinos enjoy a better public transportation experience. At least, that is the expectation.

Under the proposed program, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) is tasked to undertake reforms in regulation through the Omnibus Franchising Guidelines. The program also mandates the LTFRB to implement new jeepney-vehicle standards, rationalize routes and assist in a proposed scrapping program, among others.

Other government agencies will be involved in the agenda’s implementation. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) will help extend the Comprehensive Automotive Resurgence Strategy (Cars) Program, which provides vehicle manufacturers with incentives.

The Department of Finance, on the other hand, will help the land transportation regulator to implement a financing program for the proposed refleeting of public-utility jeepneys.

​“These programs require collaboration among all involved parties to ensure proper and inclusive implementation,” the transportation department said in an e-mail. “Government agencies will work together to facilitate this initiative from preparation, to transition and to implementation.”

Unsafe, uncomfortable

DESPITE having received certificates of public conveyance, the transportation department believes that “most public-utility vehicles on the road are not safe, not comfortable and produce significant amounts of air pollution.”

“For instance, riding through the back of jeepneys presents safety hazards for passengers,” the transportation department said. “Exhaust from old and poorly maintained vehicles is a health threat not just for users, but for drivers and the public as a whole.”

Through the implementation of national standards and “modernizing” the current fleet, the agency aims to make ​public transport “safe and enjoyable, reduce air pollution and move more people efficiently.”

In a nutshell, the modernization agenda aims to effect a transition from current vehicles plying the road to “high-quality public-transit requisites.” The Department of Transportation (DOTr) listed these items as follows: “higher capacity vehicles, low emission vehicles, fleet consolidation, reformed business model and an effective information-technology system.”

Initial benefits of the program to commuters are easier access to public transport due to an expanded network that connects different routes and establishments, and the availability of “more reliable” public transportation means.

“Travel times may also decrease due to routes becoming optimized,” the transportation department said. “Vehicles will be more comfortable, spacious, clean and safe.”

Sacrifices

BUT in order for the modernization program to be successful, a huge portion of the sector has to sacrifice. The program will largely affect jeepney drivers and operators, more than buses, taxis and UV Express.

Pagkakaisa ng mga Samahan ng Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide (Piston) President George F. San Mateo said that, while his group is supportive of the government’s aim in modernizing and improving the public transportation sector, it is but unfair to mere jeepney drivers for the government to require them to replace their units with “new, imported jeeps”.

He called the modernization of jeepney units as “a fake modernization program whose essence is the corporatization, monopolization and phase out of the jeepney.”

Under the program to modernize the iconic Filipino jeepney, the government requires drivers and operators to use vehicles equipped with low-emission Euro 4 technology.

It will, likewise, require the phasing out of 15-year-old vehicles, as they are “found” to emit gases harmful to the environment.

This, San Mateo said, is “very costly” for ordinary Filipinos.

Based on current market prices readily available on the Web, a vehicle with such technology ranges from P1 million to P1.5 million.There are 209,124 jeepney drivers nationwide at risk of being “displaced and dispossessed” through the modernization program.

‘Antipoor’ program

THE proposed program lists the requirements for a fleet consolidation or management scheme. In layman’s term, it will be compulsory for operators to have a minimum market capitalization of P7 million, and a minimum fleet of 10 jeepney units, which are also required to be doubled by 2018, and doubled again by 2019.

The same is true for buses, taxis and UV Express operators, all of which have higher requirements versus jeepneys.

Typically, jeepney operators in the Philippines own a single unit of jeepney. While there are operators with a larger fleet, small players, such as overseas workers and retirees form a larger part of the jeepney mix.

Hence, given current market prices, a small player will have to have at least P10 million to meet the required fleet.

“This only tolerate big businesses to control the public-transport industry, mostly small operators, which are overseas Filipino workers, and retirees, that cannot afford to acquire the minimum of 10 units,” Stop and Go Transport Coalition President Jun Magno said.

A jeepney operator makes about P650 daily as boundary, which is a colloquial term used by drivers to refer to the share of their operator. The rest of the earnings, no matter how big or small, are left to the driver.

“With that earning, can an operator change his or her unit and replace it with a brand-new unit with this small amount of income?” Magno asked.

Non-governmental organization Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (Eiler) claimed the modernization “will not benefit the hundreds of thousands of jeepney drivers, operators and urban poor”.

“The plan forces the operators to enter the fleet management program whose main functions are outsourced to and operated by private corporations,” it said in a position paper.

For its part, the transportation department said the fleet management program will help in the efficient deployment of vehicles.

“The modernization program not only involves modern vehicles but also pushes for the establishment of fleet management systems so that vehicles can be deployed efficiently,” it said.

Paying more

TO help the operators cope with the demands of the proposed program, the government plans to tap the Land Bank of the Philippines and the Development Bank of the Philippines to develop a loan facility for the operators.

“The department realizes that modernization requires high capital costs, so it is coordinating with the finance and trade departments, and other financial institutions in designing programs that will give manufacturers and operators better access to credit,” the DoTr said. “It is not antipoor.”

But for Eiler, such a facility will not, in any way, be beneficial to the operators or drivers.

“The government proposes to loan the jeeps to those who cannot afford the electric vehicle through bank financing. Similar to other public-private partnership projects, there is financial risks involved and only the profit of the financiers is guaranteed,” a statement by Eiler said.

Aside from the loan facility, the finance department has pledged to allocate P8 billion for the Pantawid Pasada Program of the LTFRB. The program is a fuel subsidy in the form of cards for public-transport operators and drivers.

Pantawid Pasada, which will be used as a seed fund to improve access on loans, aims to offset the impact of rising fuel prices due to the planned excise tax on petroleum products and the jeepney modernization program in line with the tax-reform initiatives of the government.

Fare difference

BECAUSE the modernization program requires drivers and operators to invest heavily in new units, fare increases will be imminent.

“The modernization scheme does not tackle oil overpricing and value-added tax on basic goods and services, which only worsen the lives of Filipino transport drivers and operators,” Eiler said. “The recent fare hike is also another burden to the commuters.”

Eiler added the organization does not oppose improvements of services. “But we do oppose the transfer of jeepney operations to big private businesses,” the group said. “This will not solve the poor living conditions of most jeepney drivers, instead robs them of their livelihood.”

Magno agreed, citing fare differences of regular jeepneys and electric vehicles. The minimum fare for an e-jeep is P11, while that of a regular jeep is only P8.

“If we implement the modernization by shifting to electric or solar jeep, it has great impact to the riding public because of high-fare adjustment,” he explained.

Unnecessary add-ons

IN order to cope with the heavy costs that will be shouldered by the drivers and operators, the transportation department suggested for small players to merge to meet the minimum requirements.

“Small operators can consolidate to pool resources, meet minimum credit requirements and share the cost of operations and maintenance,” Eiler said.

The agency added that organizing operators will reduce costs by sharing services, such as cleaning, repairs, maintenance and fleet management.

“It will also be easier for operators to obtain fuel and spare parts at discounted rates,” it said.

The proposed modernization program also mandates that public-transportation vehicles should be equipped with a global positioning system device and Internet connectivity.

For Magno, these are unnecessary add-ons, not to mention unwanted costs. “Such devices are not applicable and worthless for a jeep, because the practice of its operations is pick and drop for a short distance of route,” he explained.

Drivers’ benefit

BUT the transportation department maintained that it is not backing down in implementing the much-needed program, which has been placed in the back burner several times now.

It claimed that through driver support programs, the quality of public transport will be enhanced, hence, both commuters and drivers will benefit from it.

“The driver support programs in the form of training and accreditation will improve the quality of public transport, enhance the dignity and professionalism of drivers and encourage more people to use public transport,” it said.

It added that the program will help the drivers achieve job security, as the program will require operators to provide monthly salary and benefits, in lieu of the boundary system.

“Drivers will have the security of monthly salary and benefits. Drivers will have reduced working hours, making it safer for both the driver and the passengers,” the agency said.It added that with the phaseout of vehicles aged 15 and up, health risks will also be minimized.

“Due to modernized vehicle specifications, drivers will also be less exposed to air pollution and other health hazards,” it said.

Aside from this, the transportation department and its attached agencies will conduct route rationalization studies within and outside Metro Manila to help improve mobility. A local public-transport route plan will be available by 2019.

Another goal is to include all modes of public transportation to the automated fare-collection scheme.

Revamp needed

BUT in order for all of these to push through, the transportation department must implement the Omnibus Franchising Guidelines, which spell out the rules for issuing public-transportation franchises.

“Through these guidelines, public-transport services will be provided in accordance with the local government units’ public-transport plans, where routes are based on passenger demands and the existing road network,” the agency said.

These guidelines will also “ensure that approved franchises have safe, comfortable and environmentally sustainable vehicles.”

“With the Omnibus Franchising Guidelines, public-transport franchises will be in accordance with local public-transport plans instead of the current situation where public-transport franchises are dependent on route proposals of operators,” the transportation department said.

The Omnibus Franchising Guidelines will be released in the fourth quarter of 2017.

The transport department also assured that existing franchises will continue to operate for the next two to three years upon issuance of the guidelines.

“During and after the transition period, operators can apply to operate new or modified routes introduced by local governments in their local public-transport plans,” the transport department said.

Image Credits: Alysa Salen