Despite the damaging effects of the Wuhan virus on public health, the economy and private enterprises, it does come with a silver lining.
The need to make public transport safer with proper distancing between passengers, coupled with the need to do away with cash transactions have caused the Department of Transportation (DOTr) to expedite its modernization programs.
In a memo sent to me by the DOTr, I was appraised on nine game-changing reforms that are being expedited for completion. I was also briefed on the status of road related infrastructure projects that are in the pipeline. Together, these developments should improve the state of public transportation and the flow of traffic in the metropolis.
The first reform implemented by the DOTr is the seating protocol inside jeeps, buses, and trains, taking into account the minimum one meter distance between passengers. This has already been done.
Second, bus and jeep routes have been rationalized for greater efficiency. Public Utility Vehicles (PUVs) will no longer be allowed to ply secondary routes before running through main thoroughfares like EDSA, C5, or Roxas Boulevard. Beginning this month, secondary and main thoroughfares will be treated distinctly. Only accredited PUVs will be allowed to ply the main roads. The move will solve the problem of overlapping routes between PUVs whilst decongesting the main thoroughfares.
Third, buses will have dedicated lanes on EDSA and will take up the inner lanes, not the outer lanes as it did before. This was already implemented last week, albeit only for P2P buses. Not only will this prevent buses from indiscriminately loading/unloading and swerving across lanes, it will also allow them to achieve a faster turn-around time and ply the route more frequently during the day. It will compensate for the limited number of passengers allowed per bus.
Fourth, with buses now on the innermost lane, a 1.5 meter (width) bike lane will be carved out of EDSA to promote non-motorized transport (NMT). As NMT’s become more prevalent, the bike lanes will be expanded. The use of NMTs is the trend among progressive cities in the world.
Fifth, the DOTr will require buses and jeeps to have a GPS system so they can be tracked in real time. Through a phone app, the GPS systems will allow commuters to monitor the exact location of their ride and determine its exact time of arrival. On the part of government regulators, it will enable them to track driver behavior, deviations from the pre-approved route and number of trips made.
Sixth, in cooperation with PayMaya, PUV operators will be mandated to accept payments from digital wallets. The cashless system will negate the need for cash handling, thus preventing the risk of virus transmission.
Seventh, Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) are already in use in our toll roads. This will soon become the norm, rather than the exception, as we avoid physically handing cash to toll booth cashiers.
Eighth, within the year, all transactions with DOTr-related agencies will be done on-line. This includes processing of drivers licenses and vehicle registrations. The absence of over-the-counter transactions will bring greater convenience to our people whilst minimizing graft.
Ninth, the DOTr is appealing to government agencies and private enterprises to provide shuttle services instead of providing car plans. Shared rides are the wave of the future. It will decongest roads and reduce carbon emissions.
These reforms have been on the drawing board for many years but could not be implemented for one reason or another. The pandemic has given the DOTr the impetus to implement them at the soonest time possible.
As expected, grandstanding politicians like Congressman Carlos Zarate are standing in the way of progress. The party list congressman is accusing the DOTr of taking advantage of the pandemic to retire antiquated jeepneys. He is accusing the DOTr of being anti-poor and anti- jeepney drivers.
This statement reveals that the congressman is apparently willing to gamble with the health of the Filipino people. He is willing to allow antiquated jeeps to continue spewing noxious smoke that damages the environment. He is willing to deprive our people of a better public transport alternative. All these just to pander to his constituency. This is the height of irresponsibility and selfishness.
I consider the accusations of the Congressman to be typical of a traditional politician. The fact is, the DOTr has been in close coordination with cooperatives of jeepney operators. As a result of this coordination, the DOTr has arranged for a 30% fuel subsidy, loan deferment and franchise extension to help jeepney drivers and operators cope with the crisis. It has also offered jeepney operators soft loans to upgrade their fleets.
We should reject politicians who stand in the way of progress. Our commuters deserve better than the status quo.
The modernization program of the DOTr is forging ahead regardless. It coincides with 12 infrastructure projects that will come on-line in the next few years. Here is the latest update of projects according to Build3 Tsar, Vince Dizon.
The much awaited SLEx-SLEx connector road (Skyway stage 3) is now 76% complete and will be operational by December 2020
The Harbor Link Road, an elevated bypass connecting the North Harbor to NLEx, will also be operational by December 2020.
LRT-2 Extension was 71% as of last October and will be operational by December, 2020.
LRT1 Extension to Cavite was 31% complete as of last October and will be operational by December 2021.
MRT 3 Rehabilitation is 24% complete and will be finished by July 2021
MRT 7 is now 49% complete and will be operational by December 2021.
The BCG-Ortigas Center Road Link over the Pasig River is now 45% complete and will be operational by December 2020.
The Estrella-Pantaleon bridge connecting Rockwell to Mandaluyong City is 49% complete and will be operational by February 2021
The Binondo-Intramuros bridge is now 29% complete and will be operational by December 2021.
PNR Phase 1 (Tutuban to Malolos) was 7% complete as of last December and is expected to be operational by 2022.
The North-South Commuter Railway (Calamba to Clark) will be completed after the term of President Duterte.
The Metro Manila Subway will start tunneling operations in the 4th quarter. The DOTr was expected to receive the tunneling rig this summer but this was delayed by the pandemic. It should arrive by September, at the latest. Partial operability is seen after the term of President Duterte.
The combined effect of PUV modernization and the new infrastructure projects should change the game as far as traffic is concerned. These are significant steps towards realizing our dream of a transport system that is modern, technology-driven, and environmentally sustainable.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.