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Traffic Czar or Traffic Caesar?

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Marvin A. Tort

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Traffic Czar or Traffic Caesar?

I wish Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade the best of luck. By legislating his designation as Traffic Czar, the House of Representatives as well as the Senate are putting on his shoulders the burden of — as well as the blame on — the gargantuan task of resolving the problem of vehicular traffic congestion in Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao.

The House of Representatives approved on final reading last Monday House Bill No. 6425. This proposed law gives Secretary Tugade, as Traffic Czar, the task of developing within three years or until 2021 a comprehensive framework to improve vehicular traffic flow in the top three metropolitan areas. Along with this task, of course, comes possible glory, or possible defeat.

HB 6425’s counterpart measure, Senate Bill No. 1284, is still pending second-reading approval. A news report in this paper noted that the Senate bill covers only Metro Manila and Metro Cebu, and does not include Davao City like the House Bill, and provides for a presidential appointee to be named Traffic Manager, instead of the Transportation Secretary.

A traffic leader is necessary, according to House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Cesar V. Sarmiento of Catanduanes, given the need to “harmonize overlapping traffic rules” among different local government units or LGUs. Different traffic rules and regulations among LGUs is a key contributor to the traffic problem, he told reporters.

As such, the news report detailed, HB 6425 will designate the Secretary of the Department of Transportation as the Traffic Chief, and he or she will wield “full power and authority… to streamline the management of traffic and transportation and to control road use in the identified metropolitan areas.”

HB 6425 will grant the Transportation Secretary “power of supervision and control” over functions of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), the Metropolitan Cebu Traffic Coordinating Council, and the proposed Davao Traffic Administrator; the Philippine National Police Highway Patrol Group (PNP-HPG); the Land Transportation Office (LTO); the Land Transportation and Franchising Regulatory Board (LTFRB); the Road Board; and “all other executive agencies, bureaus and offices with functions related to land transportation regulation.”

The Transportation Secretary will also have power over LGUs in metropolitan areas with respect to “enforcement of rules, policies and programs enacted pursuant to this Act and for harmonization and enforcement of all traffic rules and regulations… and establish and implement… a comprehensive and unified road use plan and a unified traffic management system to be followed by all component LGUs…”

The House bill also proposes to temporarily suspend metropolitan LGUs’ power “to issue franchises to padyak, tricycles and all other PUV units” while the proposed law is in effect, and gives the Traffic Chief the power to revoke or revise PUV franchises, or take over the operation of a franchise in “times of national emergency.”

Moreover, the House bill will also allow the President, through the Traffic Chief, to enter into contracts for priority projects while the proposed law is in effect. While the Senate bill provides: “The President is hereby granted Emergency Powers to urgently utilize all necessary government resources, exercise police power, including eminent domain and employ executive actions and measures to ensure effective implementation….”

choose right way

I have yet to read the actual draft of the House and Senate bills, and will do so once I get clear copies. However, I can only hope that both drafts will be very clear in their scope, specifically covering only “vehicular traffic-related” functions of MMDA, LTO, LTFRB, PNP-HPG and other public agencies. Moreover, the law should recognize constitutional safeguards on property rights, freedom of movement, restraints on trade, and abuse of police power.

In addition, the proposed law should give the Traffic chief powers also over tollways, which are supposedly public highways but are controlled and managed by private corporations. Portions of tollways such as the North and South Luzon expressways, for instance, as well as CAVITEx and MCX are all still within the territorial boundaries of Metro Manila and should be under the scope of the Traffic boss.

This becomes crucial particularly in situations when tollways management imposes or applies policies and conditions that may be also seen as possibly detrimental to public interest. A case in example is the reported plan to make the elevated tollway, or the Skyway, exclusive only to vehicles with RFIDs, to the exclusion of motorists paying in cash. Or the closure of the Skyway, like several instances in the past, to vehicular traffic to make way for a privately organized running event.

One can already foresee the repercussions of making the Skyway exclusive to RFID or e-tag vehicles. This will unfairly limit all cash-paying motorists to use at-grade or street-level tollways. We may see a situation where poorer motorists are limited to the at-grade tollway, and add to traffic congestion there, when the very intention of building an elevated tollway is to ease traffic congestion overall. Why quibble over payment method if doing so will not ease congestion and improve traffic flow? Besides, why should there be such an imposition on a “public” expressway?

The same proposed law should also limit the power of local officials, as well as tollway companies, from closing public roads or tollways for running and other sporting events, fiestas and other celebrations, political events and private functions, and funeral or religious processions, among others. Sporting or running or biking events, including marathons, can instead be done in places like Clark and Subic.

The proposed law should also take into account the present limits in public transportation, and should help broaden or expand options in the interim, while public infrastructure projects are ongoing. Congestion can be best addressed by a combination of reducing volume, removing obstructions, and allowing free flow by limiting stop-go movements of vehicles like jeepneys.

However, volume cannot be significantly reduced unless public transportation options are improved. An efficient and cost-effective public transport system will naturally promote reduction in volume particularly of private vehicles. At the same time, public transportation should be skewed towards mass transit with high number of passengers and limited number of stops. And this means more trains and buses, but no more jeepneys, tricycles, pedicabs, etc. Moving freight, bulk cargo, and containers by train, rather than by trucks, to and from Metro Manila will also be a big help.

The government and the public should support Secretary Tugade, and then hope for the best that he — or his successor — will actually be up to the challenge. The law designating him Traffic Czar might just lead to lasting solutions to vehicular traffic congestion in metropolitan areas. If so, then Tugade might just be hailed like a triumphant Julius Caesar, returning from the Gallic War with complete Roman victory at the Battle of Alesia.

On the other hand, unless long-term strategic solutions are in place by the time the Duterte Administration ends in 2022, then Tugade or his successor may be taken to task. One can then imagine a scene much like when Caesar, at the base of the Curia in the Theatre of Pompey, lay dead after he was stabbed 23 times as the result of a conspiracy by Roman senators against his dictatorship.

 

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.

matort@yahoo.com