Philippine Motoring Year-end Industry Report Card - Part One
First of three parts
by Tito F. Hermoso
Recession? Traffic is at its worst and the malls are crowded for even longer. Happily entertained by lunch time shows, spectacularly public cheesy lives of many celebs and seekers of elective public office, our economy is humming along nicely, thank you.
Call our economy by any name - overpopulated consumer culture, import dependent-export deficient, loose credit, housing shorted - or any combination thereof, the auto industry was a bright spot in a not so gloomy local economic landscape. For an industry that pitches its products to a million or so souls [out of 100 million] to sell only a 100,000 units, it is an industry that gives life and livelihood to millions. Thanks to its linkages to so many other sectors in our economy that continues to embrace our feast and famine spending culture. We look back at the year that was in order to look forward to the promise of tomorrow.
Transport takes a big chunk of our income and time. But compared to the annoying but necessary tricycle sector, train, bus, jeep, FX and taxi travel are relative bargains. For some reason, regulation of fares and consumer service standards of tricycles are left to local government units. The result is a hodgepodge of policies dealing with this national road nuisance. It is the most inhuman form of public transport, which puts passenger comfort at the bottom floor of its pygmy sidecar. Along with off-hours predatory fares, the smoke and the noise they make, thanks to substandard parts, always ruin any community's quality of life. But they are a necessity and a great way to make money. Do the tax authorities know that a tricycle's daily income net of operating costs beats the daily income of an 18 passenger licensed Public Utility Jeep?
There is hope in Taguig City's E-tricycles. Its all weather shell cab is made of lightweight materials. It is driven by smokeless and noiseless electric power. The driver sits in center front while passenger seating is a modified format of the Bangkok tuktuk and Delhi Bajaj, rotated 180 degrees.
As for the 370,000 Passenger Jeeps, there is life after the 1.6M Jumbo Jeep, a bus masquerading as a Jeep. After all how many of those does one see since a new Chinese bus is nicer to look at, eligible for financing and far more comfortable? So this gave Mitsubishi and veteran commercial vehicle body builder Almazora the idea to do the BEEP. The 26 passenger BEEP is built on a brand new Fuso Canter chassis with a brand new Euro 2 compliant diesel engine. Its mini-bus cabover design is a modification of the French Gruau-bodied mini-buses used in small towns across Europe. These mini-buses are familiar to Filipino pilgrims to Lourdes and are handicapped friendly. Like its French cousins, the BEEP pass all Euro safety standards and are as easy to get in and out off like a bus. And the price? 1.6M pesos like the Jumbo Jeep.
As traffic slows, more and more are getting into driving themselves on 2-wheelers as cheap financing bring personal motoring to more people who are tired of being preyed on by tricycles, jeeps and reckless horn-blowing buses. And since riding on 2 wheels demand deft balancing while concentrating on driving, Honda was wise to expand their Honda Safety Driving School, anticipating an increase in motorcycle sales. Now if only those eager motorcycle buyers care to invest a little time and money in learning how to save their own lives. Not to be outdone, Toyota has partnered with UP on several pilot education schemes for road safety, culminating in substantial investments in institutional structures.
The three urban mass transit railways have been the best investment the government has done to alleviate traffic. But this sector cries out for even more investment. Extensions of the LRT-1 and LRT-2 are not a moment too soon. As such, it is the MRT on EDSA that needs longer trains as the crowding on the station platforms are already at danger levels. Even the connection of the missing link between LRT-1 and MRT by Trinoma/SM North will not reduce the MRT congestion although a circumferential light rail ride is now theoretically conceivable. All the more reason to encourage the integration of the fare collection systems of the 3 railways.
Whatever happened to the original plan to totally ban buses on EDSA once the MRT is running? That was supposed to be the reward for bearing with the Odd-Even ban during the construction of the MRT. Now we still have to live with the number coding ban, a contestable usurpation of our constitutional right to travel on public roads. Even with large swathes of public real estate in North Triangle, QC and Marikina allocated for bus terminals, the numerous private bus terminals in space starved Cubao still continue to make the area an unruly choke point all days of the week.
Hopes were high last year when the pro-active LTO Asst. Sec. Bert Suansing was determined to establish the MVIS [Motor vehicle inspection system]. On and off for over 20 years, it was to put an end to rolling coffins, blinding headlights and motoring eyesores. And it would have been a spoiler to all those iffy local government anti-smoke belching highway traps as there will now be a clear and definitive national pollution standard instead of the spurious ones established by municipal ordinance.
At the same time Asst. Sec. Suansing was already well on his way to recommending 8-character European style plate numbers to replace the current license plate numbering system which was fast running out of alpha-numeric combinations. But since the good Asst. Sec. was moved to LTFRB, these projects were put on hold leaving new car registrations to revert back to a fast depleting supply of alpha numeric combinations that date back to the Martial Law era.
Public brouhaha about the scanner readable vehicle registration windshield tag delayed its implementation. Unfortunately, mistrust of Government Big Brother intentions, scuppered this rather effective means of vehicle I.D. which does away with reams of easily faked xerox copies.
With Asst. Sec. Suansing at the LTFRB, he then moved to reduce the number of franchises on oversubscribed routes. Seeing the long lines of waiting half full buses on all of EDSA's bus stops, even with the much vaunted MMDA RFIT [radio frequency identification tag] bus dispatch organizer just proves that Asst. Sec. Suansing still has a long way to go.
Recent nationalistic overtures to discriminate between local assembly CKD's vs. ASEAN CBU's via tariff walls will be construed by our trading partners as an act of protectionist war and there will be consequences on our other tradable goods if we choose to be narrowly focused on this. As a beneficiary of Globalization and multi-lateral trade agreements, we must tread carefully on this as the overall harm outweighs the benefits for such a small car market. Remember, the car market in this country is small because the income gap between rich and poor is very wide and not because cars are too expensive. In fact, globally, we have the world's cheapest Honda Civic and City, Toyota Vios and Innova, Mazda3 and Ford Focus, proof that local assembly in its current shape and form, works if one knows how to harness it. Even with current incentives, Columbian Motors and the Lee family's STAR Motors are capable of assembling small batches of multi-brand models and still remain viable.
Though Metro-Gwapo 1206 AM radio continues with its long winded slogans, introducing younger radio listeners to how life was during the Martial Law years, it still has not streamlined its periodic reports on traffic hot spots. Instead of doing a road by road recitation of all the CCTV and spotter monitored sections, the traffic reports should only mention areas where traffic is moving off-pace; i.e. when breakdowns, road works or shunts cause an unusual delay in normal traffic flow at certain times of day. It should also report unusually fast moving traffic when it does happen so the route can serve as an alternative.
Regular usage of the elevated U-turn junction at C-5 and Kalayaan Ave., has showed that it has already reached its traffic volume capacity every rush hour. Although its water under the bridge, the U-turns are just to close to each other to provide easy merging space for lane changes. The crooked alignment of the C-5 right of way makes things worse.
MMDA has been far more successful with the metal footbridges despite complaints about the open stairwells tempting peeping toms. Meantime the double loading bays for buses continue to take its toll of unsuspecting motorists. Bright flashing blue and red LEDs have been installed to help the night time motorist avoid slamming into the narrow outer concrete island.
With a lot of money invested in pink fences and rumble strips in order to make the loading bays work, squads of MMDA motorcycle officers stand sentinel after these loading bays in EDSA Connecticut and EDSA Phil Am Life homes ready to pounce on any illegal passage by private vehicles. Being part of the bus-only yellow lane, MMDA mounted squads are hard at work even on weekend nights, adding the EDSA Guadalupe Makati bound route as one of the best monitored yellow lanes on EDSA.
Perhaps to add color to the street scene, MMDA personnel sport pastel colored plastic melamine bowls for helmets, which are reminiscent of VietCong or East German VolksPolizei helmets. This is after a brief spell of bright blue sports shirts. Not that there was anything wrong with their pale blue polo jacs and US Marine style cloth caps. But the best addition to their apparel was the high visibility yellow reflective sash that have been referred to by some commuters as "miss universe". We will miss these BF/Bayani antics long after the 2010 elections.
Its a pity that ever since President Estrada stepped down, the program of DPWH Sec. Vigilar to continue to build more bridges crossing the Pasig, especially in the critical Mandaluyong, Makati and Pasig riversides, was stalled. And for this, the EDSA Makati-Mandaluyong-Pasay section continues to be the world's longest bus stop at the evening rush hour.
There is no shortage of good projects in other parts of the Metro. Really spectacular toll road projects have been the realm of the Private sector, resulting in quality planning and large financial packages. Which make interoperable electronic toll collection systems with its own Clearing House a must. With the NLEx to C-5 link via Mindanao Avenue, Luzon Avenue and Katipunan Avenue, Metro Pacific Tollways is determined to provide more than one North to South route. It also plans to link the Skyway to the NLEx via a stacked expressway over the PNR Railroad right of way, which also serves as the passage of the stalled South Rail project connecting to the just as stalled North Rail project. Metro Pacific Tollways continues to expand the NLEx as it will soon build a new spur that will go straight into Manila's Port Area.
After some initial problems, Malaysian MTD's South Luzon Tollway is as world class as they come. We can't wait until PNCC finally turns over policing of the road to MATES, the joint O&M company for SLT. Despite the unfriendly weather by the foothills of Makiling, it will be a motoring bliss to look forward to the the SLT's link to the Sto. Tomas STAR terminus as MTD is accelerating construction against all odds.
Also initially bedeviled by political interference, Skyway Stage 2's construction has settled into a daily predictable flow, hoping to put its painful 1st 3 months of complaints behind it. Skyway's owner, Citra has even renewed interest in taking on Operating and Maintaining expressways by bidding for the 30 year contract for the SCTEx.
Another bidder for the SCTEx O&M is the STAR Tollway. The current state of the STAR, despite its against-all-odds finish of the half carriageway route to Batangas City, may not be the best pointer to its ability to operate and maintain the pristine SCTEx. Some deft financial packaging should hopefully make up for STAR's track record.
The success of the SCTEx in improving business in Regions 1, 2 and 3, underlines the importance of the BCDA's plans to continue the SCTEx to points North, East and North East. BCDA continues to have the respect of the JBIC, a generous but exacting financier of long term infrastructure projects. Those hopeful for similar quick and world class execution of the other BCDA planned expressways were disappointed to know that the TPLEx was handed to an unsolicited bidder one and a half years ago with funding enough only for a 2-lane highway to Gerona, Tarlac, far short of La Union. As of this writing, there is no news on its ground breaking from the April 2009 announcement and the entry of financially muscular Rapid Thoroughfares of San Miguel Corp. San Miguel Corp., incidentally is also a bidder for the O&M of the SCTEx.
Thanks to the world class levels of O&M of the SCTEx, which is currently led by Toll Management Corp., concurrent managers of the NLEx, world class dual carriageway expressways have become attractive and sound business investments. Just look at the number of bids submitted to the BCDA. With the SCTEx success, and its strong links to a generous financier like JBIC, it is a wonder why the BCDA wasn't allowed to proceed with the stalled TPLEx.
All these private expressway projects should someday relieve the overburdened bridges on all the DPWH maintained national roads. Many have been collapsing from a combination of abuse and severe weather, crying out for more modern technology like those temporary flyovers that were deployed in 90 days in San Fernando, Pampanga and Malolos, Bulacan. But in other parts of the country, the DPWH has continued to build roads with lots of road markings, road signs and guard rails. Many of our media sorties to Panay and Bohol, Region 1, 2, 3 and 4 in Luzon have shown the deft hand of the DPWH making many of our nation's roads complement the beauty of our tropical landscape. With the destruction of many of the scenic North's mountain roads, the DPWH will be busy as there is no other mountain city that is as tourist friendly as Baguio City.
If ever, DPWH should change its template for national roads. They should require "V-cut" broad drainage canals between shoulder and the edge of the Road right-of-way if only to discourage the local populace from building residences too close to the road with gates that open toward the roadway. This way, rain run off can flow away from the road base course and not cause the road to erode from stagnant water on the shoulder. This is what weakened Highway 3 from Binalonan to Sison Pangasinan since it was hit by storms over the past 2 years, leading to most of the pavement being washed away after the floods of typhoon Pepeng this year.
Overall Public Sector performance
To be fair, Government has plans and has acted when it can. The problem is pervasive mistrust of government, mistrust engendered by patchy application of the law, legislation by misinterpreted intentions, contradicting policy incentives and easy extra legal means. The recent fuel shortages caused by E.O. 839 arm wrestling private corporations into losing money to score PR brownie points doesn't help its cause.
The past year shows that if there were flashes of brilliance, it was from the Private sector or in government agencies, like the BCDA, that functioned like the private sector. The horny hand of government tended to throw us back from the progress we made.
How all this will continue with a fiscal budget deficit overshooting by 35% as early as the SONA this year can only mean crippling taxation in the future as government asset sales have stalled. If we do not open up our infrastructure investment in public utilities and public services to foreign capital, our fiscal stimulus and infrastructure catch-up will stall. But that's another story that's buried under the Cha-Cha controversy.
Its been a daunting laundry list of things done and to do, but at least we have one. Even if it all escapes the national consciousness as this whole cockfight loving nation takes a ring side seat for the longest and biggest cockfighting derby of all time; the 2010 national elections.