Being Bong Nebrija isn't easy.
That's the impression we got when he was able to grant us some of his time on a cloudy and exceptionally traffic day. The Boss of EDSA knows he and his not-so-merry band of misfits have to climb Everest (no, not the overpass on EDSA-Scout Borromeo) to get this road moving and find a way to move people, reach their places of work or business, attend meetings and interviews, or get home to their loved ones in a reasonable amount of time.
The challenges are in front of them, beside them, above and below them. Not easy. But something tells me that the changes the MMDA are making are for the better, even if we can't feel them yet.
In The Thick Of It
When I first started texting Edison “Bong” Nebrija about an in-car interview, I had planned to pick him up at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority in Orense, Makati, and then maybe drive to a site on EDSA where they're having some active operations. Bong said he doesn't hold office there. He said his office was at the intersection of EDSA and Timog/East Avenue.
True enough, that's where we found him. It looks like a makeshift office underneath the EDSA flyover, and it's no bigger than a few shipping containers end to end with a few A/Cs running to keep it cool inside. There wasn't anything glamorous about it, as his office was in the thick of things, where the metal meets the meat.
I opened the door and there was a Secretary on the left, already overloaded with the day's paperwork judging by the group of enforcers around her. I saw Nebrija to the right, sitting at his desk, looking perplexed as he replied to a text.
He looked the part. Clean, military-style cut, jeans, black T-shirt, and a reflective vest that said BONG NEBRIJA with his callsign EAGLE ALPHA. He seemed serious, and then he stood up, said "Hi", put on his Ray-Bans, and walked with me to the car.
So many thoughts entered my mind about what to ask him while on the road. But really, all I wanted to do was to check the local optical store for a set of RayBans. They're still cool.
EDSA: The Ultimate Punishment
Nebrija was very measured but very candid when he spoke. The man had retired from the Philippine Navy a few years back with plans of heading to the U.S. and rejoin his family, but that didn't push through. And then President Duterte's administration came, and with him came a new team to take charge of the different departments of government.
That was when he joined the MMDA when, upon his return to the Philippines, he was asked by his niece for help when she was posted to the agency. Bong was assigned to the MMDA's Task Force Special Operations, a unit that was made to deal with clearing roads and sidewalks; essential elements for the flow of people and vehicles. The exploits of TFSO were publicized on social media by a foreign blogger, and somewhat became the MMDA's own reality show, depicting Nebrija standing his ground in situations where he and his crew had to deal with anything from street vendors to illegally-parked vehicles, sometimes with very powerful owners. It was like a local version of COPS.
That's where Nebrija made his name, and he became a social media favorite of many of us already stressed with daily life... traffic, to be specific. And in the Age of Duterte, someone in the MMDA doing the same kind of no-nonsense, take-no-BS thing was bound to be extremely popular.
So when the MMDA was mulling who to replace the retiring manager of EDSA traffic, a position many of us didn't really know actually existed, it was 'Bong the Badass' that many of us thought to be the logical choice.
But here's the thing: Nebrija told me that his name wasn't actually on the shortlist, yet somehow with just 3 hours prior to a press conference, he was announced as the new EDSA traffic czar. He was confused. He thought it was a punishment.
“Sir, is there something wrong that I did in TFSO which is why you're giving me EDSA?” was what Nebrija asked his General Manager, Jojo Garcia.
The Impossible Task
We can understand his sentiments at the time of his appointment. Think of his position like your company's newly-hired prime I.T. guy, and the office internet goes down.
He was put in charge of managing the enforcers along the critical 23.8 kilometers of the capital region's prime highway. It's a road that was intended to take on about a quarter of a million vehicles a day, but the actual number is now closer to 400,000. And counting.
The pressures are immense. Japanese think tank JICA estimates that EDSA traffic costs the Philippine economy about PhP 3 to 3.5 billion per day. That number is mind-boggling. Imagine that number, multiplied by 365 and you'll get the estimated annual loss. Imagine how much that loss can build. Then add another 3.5 if its a leap year.
It's a job none of us envy, something confirmed by the number of times Nebrija has had to swipe his smartwatch to refuse a call. He says a Senator is calling for a meeting and other media outlets were requesting interviews. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Bong for a soundbite or a face to face. Or a grilling.
Nebrija clearly wasn't relishing the post, but as he says, you have to jump in wholesale or not at all. And so, on the day of his new fate as EDSA traffic boss, he had to come up with a plan.
He declared that the MMDA will make EDSA a traffic discipline zone.
Nebrija's sweeping declaration may have been ill-advised, but it was all he could come up with on the day, he says. His rationale was simple: if motorists can obey rules when driving on the NLEX and whenever they're in Subic, why not on EDSA?
His department had just over 400 MMDA enforcers when he took over, but that gradually reduced to about 375. Why? He says he had to get rid of the bad enforcers.
The MMDA's traffic czar says that he's become the destination of choice for the ones no one would choose. He gets all the misfits; the enforcers that no one wants. The bottom of the barrel. The latak.
When TFSO was formed, Nebrija says he had no people under him for it. It was an ad hoc unit. Eventually, other departments would send him guys to actually operate, much less operate in a special manner. But if you were a division head, would you send your best people to another group? Of course not. You'd want to keep the pick of the litter to yourself and send out the ones that are difficult to work with, are always late or absent, or are possibly corrupt.
Bong approached the challenge of leading a veritable Suicide Squad as a challenge. Clean slates were given to everyone, and they all attended retraining together like a military unit going through bootcamp. The same was done for the EDSA unit.
The ex-Navy man wanted to restore their pride in their uniform.
Flak From The Ground
Nebrija and Co. may have a lot of fans on social media and beyond, but make no mistake about it: they have a lot of detractors. He's used to dealing with them from his time in TFSO, but EDSA is a different level. So much more depends on this road, and tempers are literally already boiling over.
Our first time to really notice the changes that Nebrija's team had been making was in March. The MMDA herded as much of the buses as they can into EDSA's yellow bus lanes, and lo and behold, traffic got better.
The buses they rode had to drive line astern. They were prevented from overtaking and effectively racing each other to jockey for position to get passengers. And then and there, it became apparent to Nebrija and anyone else observing that there were too many buses on EDSA, judging by the number of near-vacant vehicles.
But something that private motorists saw as nothing short of miraculous was seen by the bus riding public as a mess, and things came to a head when bus passengers took it upon themselves to curse and yell at the MMDA enforcers doing their job. Nebrija actually stepped in and was even told by a passenger that their taxes pay their salary.
That didn't bode well with Nebrija, and he engaged them in a yelling match.
In a weird way, it reminded me of a girlfriend from about 10 years ago. She was from U.P., and I made a really bad joke about how our taxes paid her tuition.
And that's how she became the ex-girlfriend.
Appearances Aren't Everything, But They Matter
Discipline is what he came to Circumferential Road 4 to instill, and it's going to be a tough fight to get there.
Currently, Nebrija says he's fighting a war on two fronts; one with is men and women who he's trying to lead and change for the better, the other with motorists -public and private- who have gotten used to doing things their way, regulations and courtesy be damned.
Of the many stories he shared, one stuck out. It was about how bus drivers would trip cut on EDSA and make a U-turn under the Ortigas flyover. That wasn't allowed, but the bus drivers simply would throw a fifty or even twenty peso bill out the window as they did the maneuver. What made it worse was that the officers back then would pick up the bills, and it became a de facto (and illegal) form of toll to look the other way.
Things are changing though. Nebrija recounted a story about how an acquaintance called him up to report that one of his enforcers is trying to have the acquaintance's friend arrested. The reason? The supposed friend tried to give the enforcer 500 pesos to sort out a violation. The enforcer refused and called the nearest police officers for assistance. Nebrija chastised his acquaintance for calling, saying he was lucky the MMDA's top man for zero nonsense wasn't there personally. Why? Bong says not only would the driver have been arrested on the spot, but the guy one the phone would have been arrested too for tolerating bribery.
He makes it clear that it's not him, but his team, that is to be thanked for a thankless job. Amidst all the criticisms thrown Nebrija and Co.'s way, they know they're making a difference against odds that would get any normal person to start pulling hair out.
Some comment that Nebrija's merely posing, that he's grabbing attention through social media about how he's getting the job done. But as a leader, you have to be seen as doing your job as much as you're actually doing it.
There are those who think they have better ideas. There are those who think they can do a better job at revolutionizing EDSA. There are those who still look down on the hardworking MMDA officers as basureros; a line of work from whence many of the originals came from. That's fine. We're all entitled to our opinions and can comment on social media without any real consequences. But at the end of the day, are they willing to give up a cushy job or time with family to take on a post that is, quite frankly, thankless?
A lot of the MMDA officers have had to make sacrifices to work the street, and so is the guy sitting next to me in the car: Nebrija lives alone.
His wife is working in the U.S. as a nurse, and their kids are with her. Anyone who has ever lived away from immediate family will know that Whatsapp, Viber or Skype are never enough.
The MMDA's EDSA Traffic Boss spent over an hour with us in gridlock EDSA traffic, answering my many questions and swapping stories. At the end of those 60 minutes and just 3 kilometers traveled from his office to the intersection of Bonny Serrano, I thanked him and his guys for those of us who appreciate the hard work, challenges and sacrifices, and we went on our merry way.
They still have a job to do.