Transport takes up so much of a Filipino's 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?
National nuisance: Two wheels or three?
There has been a huge growth in motorcycle sales ever since traffic in urban centers became worse. Many have opted to drive themselves on 2 wheels than deal with the predatory practices of tricycles and the inefficiency of buses. The growth in 2-wheeled self-drive transport is true in heavily trafficked cities but not in the other islands of the country. There, motorcycle sales is still driven by the tricycle market. At least in the Visayas and Mindanao, the tricycle side cars are more passenger friendly, size wise, than the ones in Luzon. This calls for national regulation of the tricycle public transport segment. Though they are great transport convenience, they clog national highways.
Death defying: Ride or drive?
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.
Used and stretched
Outside of the urban centers of Luzon, both the tricycle and the PUJ are facing a new kind of competition: the Multi-cab. These Multi-cabs are reconditioned Suzuki micro-commercial chassis, stretched to carry 12 to 15 passengers, jeepney style. Being gasoline powered, they do not emit the black fumes most diesel PUJs do. Being lighter, smaller and cheaper, they provide profitable transport for the operator and their margins are better than either tricycle and diesel jeepney.
Take a global perspective of this, particularly the 2 fastest growing car markets in the world, India and China grew because of the Suzuki micro-commercial vehicles. Quaintly nicknamed "Wuling" in China, it has become a fond generic nickname for all this stretched micro vehicles.
E-Tuktuk or E-Bajaj?
Though hopes are high for Taguig City's E-tricycles, which resemble the Bangkok Tuktuk or the Indian Bajaj, price will determine if these can outsell a reconditioned Suzuki Multi-Cab. Even Makati's E-Jeepney will have to be really cheap and easy to maintain if we want an environmentally cleaner transportation alternative to the tricycle, Multi-cab or diesel Jeepney.
EDSA's four letter word : Buses
Of the buses, its the ones on EDSA that get the most attention. The past administrations practically catered to the buses. MMDA gave the buses 2 exclusive lanes [the yellow lane]. They built loading bays and traffic light control counters. So many MMDA troopers are assigned to put order in their queueing and arrest private motorists usurping bus space. The RFID tag scheme was put in place. Giant alternative terminals were put up to wean passengers away from crowded Cubao. And still, regulations for the Bus terminal space were relaxed to allow more terminals in Cubao with barely enough space for the bus fleet, much less space for intermodal exchange between jeepney, taxi and foot traffic. Meantime, all kinds of LTFRB franchises were issued to ply EDSA.
Why EDSA? Because it is still the best thoroughfare linking North to South. C-5 is disjointed. Rizal Avenue to Taft is crowded by PUJs that stop at every corner. A JICA study from some ten years ago cited EDSA capacity for 1,600 buses. Private motorists suffered the odd even scheme in the 90s, believing the promise that once the MRT-3 was up and running, only intermodal bus and jeepneys from intersecting routes will be allowed to "touch" EDSA. With the MRT-3, buses were to be banned on EDSA. But with such a strong bus lobby, the buses ended up ruling EDSA with MMDA spending money for them and squeezing out private motorists.
Depending on whose figures one checks, EDSA is claimed to have 7,000 buses. Only 3,000 are legit. But then what is a legit franchise? Overlapping Provincial franchise from Magalang, Pampanga to Dasmarinas, Cavite allow passage and loading/unloading along EDSA. Franchised city buses with pending cases are also allowed to ply. Some buses share a multiple of one legal franchise. And by nightfall, nice looking but colorum non-air con buses ply their trade recklessly, weaving across all lanes and picking passengers in lane 3, the middle of EDSA.
Through the years, several Congressmen and Senators have proposed ways to limit cut throat competition by outlawing the boundary system of compensation for public transport workers. Senator Sotto recently enquired why public transportation is not a state monopoly as is the practice in many countries. The answer lies in vetting the franchisees. If Metro Manila, like the water utility franchise, should be considered as one or two large franchise areas - like Maynilad and Manila Water. The franchise can be bided out to well capitalized companies, who can be affiliated with large foreign groups with global reach and expertise like Stagecoach Plc or even the Hong Kong-China Motor Bus or even the MTR of Hong Kong. These private companies can now invest in the BRT - Bus Rapid Transit - as found in Bogota, Curitiba and some parts of Jakarta and Bangkok. This can be another PPP initiative with several years for the franchisee to recover investment. Only then can the cut throat reckless driving and the excess number of buses be reduced.
Railways all the ways?
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 up for grabs in the new PPP. As such, it is the MRT on EDSA that needs longer trains with more coaches as the crowding on the station platforms are already at danger levels. A fare hike is inevitable and rightfully so. 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.
Coding and off the rails?
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 the private motorists 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. What else can be said about North Rail and South Rail? South Rail has started chugging along, though it still has to grow its market share as its reach is not that far out yet. North Rail, to say the least, has defended its neatly cleared right of way from the return of the Informal settlers, so far.
Hopes were high two years ago 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, smoke belchers 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.
No plate, no brainer
The continuous enforcement of the PNP HPG's no plate no travel rule shines a light on the failure of the LTO execute 2 year old plans of manufacturing 8-character European style plate numbers to replace the current license plate numbering system which was fast running out of alpha-numeric combinations.
Who's afraid of electronic tags?
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.
Though Metro-Gwapo 1206 AM radio no longer continues with its long winded Martial-era slogans, it remains to be seen if the Twitter account has better public reach. 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.
Elevated U-turns: the last?
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 too 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. This has stymied efforts of some private Fort Bonifacio developers to build their own C-5 interchanges.
Peeping tom bridges
MMDA has been quite successful with the networks of metal footbridges despite complaints about the open stairwells tempting peeping toms. More intersections like Balintawak clover leaf needs them. The yellow island ends reflective tiles have helped reduced collisions between motorists and loading bays. The reflective stud lane markers have been good at keeping lane discipline but unfortunately they get smothered when asphalt overlays are applied. So if the MMDA can strictly segregate bus lanes, when will we see segregated lanes for bicycles and motorcycles?
Take that, you bullies!
But the best thing the MMDA did in 2010 was to finally stand up to the bully buses. By including them in the number coding scheme and culling the colorum buses, traffic, which is usually bad during the 90 day Christmas rush was far lighter than it had ever been since 2003.
Bridging the gap
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. Because of this, the EDSA Makati-Mandaluyong-Pasay section continues to be the world's longest bus stop at the evening rush hour. At least, the steel framework of the Estrella to Noah's Ark bridge across the Pasig is now visible.
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 between EC-Tag and E-PASS along with its own Clearing House a must.
Links all over
With the finished NLEx to C-5 Mindanao Avenue link, Metro Pacific Tollways is determined to provide more than one North to South route. It plans to link the Skyway to the NLEx via a stacked expressway over the PNR Railroad right of way called the NLEx-SLEx Connector. Metro Pacific Tollways continues to expand the NLEx as it will soon build a new spur that will go through Maysan, MacArthur Highway which will then link to an elevated expressway called the Harbor Link, straight into Manila's Port Area.
MNTC or Manila North Tollways will also be integrating the SCTEx into its operations sphere by eliminating the Dau and Mabalacat toll barriers, while integrating the Tipo toll barrier with the SFEx. Metro Pacific Tollways is also proposing the CaLa Expressway linking C-6 at the Greenfield interchange, crossing Laguna and Cavite to link with the terminus of the Cavite Coastal Expressway at Tirona Cavite. With the NAIA Expressway already linked to the Skyway, Metro Pacific Tollways plans to build an elevated expressway connecting NAIA to the Cavite Coastal Expressway over the existing Andrews Avenue, Domestic and MIA roads.
The only problem spot in Metro Tollways plans are not of its doing. For 25 years, the citizens of Bulacan looked with envy at how Cavite and Laguna expanded their highway network. Congestion in Central Bulacan has slowed economic progress and the North Rail project is still some years off. It was with welcome relief that the Balagtas-North Food Exchange interchange and Plaridel bypass interchange started construction last year. It was to relieve the congestion on the Bocaue-Sta. Maria traffic corridor and the Sta-Rita-Norzagaray-Plaridel truck route. But for some reason, these two projects stalled. Granted that the North Food Exchange project, long frozen for more than ten years, may not have any takers, but at least the Balagtas spur should free up traffic heading for Guiginto, Bustos and other parts of Sta. Maria.
The most disastrous black spot on the infrastructure scene is the daily losses that MTD, the builder of the new ACSTEx [Alabang-Calamba-Sto. Tomas Expressway], incurred when the agreed toll rates were not imposed. This adds further insult to injury where for 3 years, the PNCC kept the collections to itself, while providing little or no security or flood planning for MTD construction crews who were plagued with thefts and poor materials/work scheduling when they completely rebuilt the broken SLTollway. Not only does MTD have to deal with huge losses and cost overruns, they have been a victim of a populist campaign to misrepresent the mandated toll hike.
Also initially bedeviled by political interference, Skyway Stage 2's construction advanced into the Christmas opening of Sucat Skyway Stage 2. In a little more than a quarter, the rest of Skyway Stage 2, namely the Alabang South Station exit and the Toll Plaza between Sucat and Alabang will open. The temporary ramps at Bicutan will soon be history, restoring 3 full lanes at the grade level Skyway.
After some time, the STAR is looking like a proper expressway now that TRB has allowed it to raise tolls. A new toll plaza welcomes travelers at Sto. Tomas as the link with the ACTEx is only an inauguration away.
Dream and finance it
The success of the SCTEx in improving business in Region 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.
No money, no highway
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 three 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 of further funding from financially muscular Rapid Thoroughfares of San Miguel Corp. Now that San Miguel Corporation is concentrating on the LRT-7 astride the NLEast Expressway, some DPWH right of way acquisitions for the TPLEx are at least moving forward.
Friend not foe
The private sector should view BCDA as proponent for economic development rather than a competitor. Imagine the opportunities open to the private sector if BCDA and its willing funder, JBIC of Japan, can continue the SCTEx 2 from Tarlac to Poro Point and John Hay, both properties of BCDA? Or continue the SCTEx 3 from Tarlac to Rizal, Nueva Ecija - still insurgent territory - all the way to Baler, Aurora, passing Fort Magsaysay in Laur? With the successful creation of the SCTEx in less than 4 years time, the BCDA should have more government backing in pushing for more "missionary" infrastructure projects.
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 international grade 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 should be busy there as there is no other mountain city that is as tourist friendly as Baguio City.
Canals run deep
If ever, DPWH should change its template for national roads. They should require "V-cut" broad-base 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 3 years, leading to most of the pavement being washed away after the floods of typhoon Pepeng in 2009.
Bypass the bypass
Finally, DPWH should review the projects for widening existing highways that go through crowded towns. The widened roads only end up being parking places for the locals. DPWH should concentrate on building by pass highways that are fenced in so as to discourage encroachments on the right of way. The Martial Law era by-passes in Silang, Cavite, Moncada and Paniqui, Tarlac were once shining examples of cheaper alternatives to full length expressways.
Overall Public Sector performance
Too much oversight leads to blindness and paralysis
Worrisome in all this is the active involvement of the Legislature and Judiciary in sectors that are the Executive branch's functions. The Pipeline leak, the SLEx toll rate hike, the VAT on Tolls and investigations into excess bus franchises on EDSA are falling into further stasis as the executive branch is not allowed to function.
Last touch is at fault
Take the pipe line leak. It was caused by the footing of the Magallanes flyover being built over the pipeline. Now is this the pipeline's fault? The Makati City government was already handling the case with the view of normalizing oil pipeline operations so as not to starve the city of precious fuel. Or the SLEx toll increase? It was a TRB decision until it was halted by the Supreme Court. And now its the TRB that is pussy footing to populist pressure.
To be fair, Government has plans and has acted when it can. The problem is the public's pervasive mistrust of executive government, mistrust engendered by patchy application of the law, legislation by misinterpreted intentions, contradicting policy incentives and easy extra legal means. The witch hunt and scapegoating that occurs when a newly elected dispensation kicks out the old appointees paralyzes government. A lot of career executive officials never get their chance to make seamless transitions in the bureaucracy because many officials are politically motivated appointees.
Also, the past legislatures were right in creating government agencies with private sector wages. Most of if not all Government agencies and companies that have private sector institutionalized practices and wages are just as efficient as their genuinely private counterparts.
The past year shows that if there were flashes of brilliance, it was from the Private sector or from government agencies, like the BCDA, that function like the private sector. BCDA has become a leader in developing local economies. The horny hand of government tended to throw us back from the progress we made, but not if all agencies were as well motivated and connected like the BCDA.
How all this will continue with a fiscal budget deficit 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.
Public Sector Grade Rating : Started early in the year with an A-Minus but ending the year with a B-Minus
Catch Part Two next week: our report card on Philippine Motoring and the Private Sector