A couple of weeks ago, I found myself sitting inside a conference room at the Department of Transportation (nee Communications). Secretary Tugade, together with all the heads of the sub-agencies, departments and offices attached or reporting to the DOTr were present and ready to present their progress from their first 100 days in office.
For rail, they outlined their achievements such as getting the process rolling for acquiring new trains, especially after the issues with the previous administrators of what was then-DOTC. I'm sure you've heard about that issue, though the images of passengers having to walk on the tracks due to the MRT failing are perhaps the most telling.
For sea transport, the agency presented their accomplishments and plans to decongest and improve service at the ports. The DOTr announced that they are slashing the processing times for clearance of vessels, ancillary permits, e-Permits, and more. They seek to improve the passenger terminal experience with WiFi, improving maritime safety through more stringent inspection of vessels, and enhancing the presence of the Philippine Coast Guard at the ports for better security.
The issues with the airports were perhaps the most interesting especially with regards to congestion. The DOTr made it known how they fixed up Runway 13/31 in Manila, how they are shifting general aviation to Sangley Point in Cavite, and shift more domestic flights to Clark. The DOTr also banned general aviation operations at NAIA from noon to 7:00 PM; much like a coding for the skies. The results were quick: a jump in on-time arrivals from 47% to 71%.
What alarmed me most was how the safer Instrument Landing System (ILS) at NAIA has been consistently broken for almost two years, meaning our pilots had to land under visual flight rules, or VFR. They're addressing that too, and have ordered the necessary components to overhaul the system. Thankfully, there are no more cases of bullets being planted on unsuspecting passengers. Zero. And there's faster, free, working WiFi too.
When we got to the topic of traffic, well, that's when things became very interesting indeed. The DOTr gave plenty of their statistics from 100 days of operations such as the 310 colorum vehicles they impounded, the 343 smoke belchers they apprehended, the 1,115 illegal roadside (or on-road)structures they cleared, the 5,013 illegally parked vehicles that they towed, and the 171,550 traffic violations (various) that they apprehended nationwide, of which 28,064 are from Metro Manila.
Perhaps the top achievement that the DOTr made was with regards to the formation of a singular traffic authority to handle the mess we're in. They call it the Inter-Agency Committee on Traffic, or I-ACT, and its headed by the chief of the PNP Highway Patrol Group (HPG), effectively unifying the traffic authority of the DOTr, MMDA, LTO, LTFRB and PNP-HPG. The shared resources between these agencies allows them to more effectively manage the situation through unified radio communications, access to the MMDA's CCTV network, and shared logistics.
By now you've read about how they're raising the maximum penalties for traffic violations, how the number coding scheme was re-enforced in full and without window hours, and even a new tax plan to raise the cost of vehicles. The DOTr is even asking the upper house (Senate) for emergency powers to address traffic. All of this is geared at reducing vehicular volume and improving the speed on EDSA and other major thoroughfares.
Sitting there in that press conference, I can't help but feel how daunting the DOTr's task is, and that's just looking at Metro Manila; it's worthy to note that an overwhelming majority of the 171,550 violations are from various regions and provinces. I can see that the heads of the different agencies tasked with road transportation are all feeling the strain, especially since -after they decided to take charge of training all the traffic enforcers of the cities that make up the NCR- only 200 of the existing enforcers were able to pass the test and qualifications. And that's out of 2000 that the I-ACT needs. Do the math.
Given time, the DOTr and the I-ACT can handle the traffic mess with regards to driver discipline, but it is infrastructure that needs to catch up. We've been behind on our infrastructure spending to build new roads, highways, airport facilities, and everything else in between; the ASEAN standard is about 5 to 5.5% of the GDP, but we're behind that.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about the DOTr briefing is what they weren't saying outright: private motorists -those of us who drive our own cars to work, school, and our appointments- are not the piority when it comes to traffic management. The DOTr's priority is getting public transport to move quicker and more smoothly, that means buses, jeepneys, UV Express shuttles, and the like. Yes, the government is dedicating its eggs to the basket that moves more people.
And now, we can see it more clearly. The UVVRP coding window exemption that we have enjoyed for the last couple of years has been revoked in an effort to reduce midday traffic. The government is proposing a heavier excise tax schedule to make cars more expensive, and even a heavier tax plan on luxury cars is likewise being pursued.
From what I gather, until such time as new infrastructure come online (i.e. rail, elevated expressways), all they can do is limit and manage traffic flow. And so a bus capable of carrying 60 to 80 persons is higher in the order of priorities when compared to a car that can carry five... or one.
Even though we won't like it, it makes sense that the government is prioritizing public transport even if it is at the expense of private car owners. Efficient mass transit systems are, after all, the most visible signs of a government's accountability to their citizens.