MANILA – Public transit ridership fell sharply at the height of the pandemic, putting the once busy roads and railways to a standstill when the country entered mandatory lockdowns in 2020.
But amid the health crisis, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) saw an opportunity to improve the transport sector, at the same time provide relief to drivers and passengers through the service contracting program and free rides.
At the backdrop of rising fuel costs and inflation, there was a huge clamor for the Marcos administration to continue the big-ticket transportation projects and programs, especially at a time when Filipinos see themselves returning back to offices and schools.
A day after he assumed office, on July 1, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. heeded the call and approved the extension of the free EDSA Carousel bus rides until December and free rides for students who will be using the Metro Rail Transit-3 (MRT-3), Light Rail Transit-2 (LRT-2) and Philippine National Railways (PNR) when in-person classes resume in August.
Several commuters interviewed by the Philippine News Agency (PNA) were grateful, saying the move would ease the burden on rising living expenses and help them save money.
Edwin Canlas, 52, a regular user of the EDSA Carousel, said the free ride program was a huge relief for someone like him seeking a job.
“Libre po ang pamasahe ‘tsaka malaking bagay po 'yan sa amin kasi wala man po ako trabaho. Nanghihingi lang po ako sa pinsan ko ng pangkain. Naghahanap po ako ng trabaho ngayon (The fare is free and that is a big thing because I don’t have a job. I ask for food from my cousin. And I’m looking for a job right now),” Canlas said.
Another bus rider, Dalia Gacias, 66, said she uses the money saved from the free rides to buy food whenever she goes to the cinema at malls in Quezon City.
“Senior ako, wala akong pension sa SSS [Social Security System], so, doon ako nakaka-save ng pagkain ko ‘pag nanonood ako ng sine (I’m a senior and I don’t have an SSS pension. That’s how I get to save for my food whenever I watch a movie at the cinema),” Gacias said.
For the upcoming in-person classes, senior college student Jio Ubando, 21, said the free ride program for students in the different rail lines would allow him to save around PHP50 per day.
“As a student na walang stable na income siyempre makakatulong kahit pa PHP50 per day, pandagdag na lang sa food allowance at siyempre sa ibang bayarin sa school (As a student without stable income, of course PHP50 per day helps. I add it to my food allowance and other school expenses),” Ubando said.
The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board is also fast-tracking the release of payment to the two consortia operating along the EDSA Carousel bus route.
LTFRB chair Cheloy Garafil said to date, the agency has paid PHP310 million to cover the sixth up to the 10th week of the program.
“We have promised to further improve the processing of their payment so it will be up-to-date by the end of July,” she said in a statement.
She added that they would look into the establishment of a terminal in Monumento in Caloocan City to serve as a “staging area” and rest stop for bus drivers and conductors, upgrade of facilities at bus stops to provide more comfort to passengers even during rains, fare rate adjustment amidst the rising fuel prices, among others.
In his inaugural speech, Marcos vowed to continue building on and complete on schedule the infrastructure projects that have been started, saying "no part of our country will be neglected."
Marcos and his Transportation chief, Jaime Bautista, expressed their desire to continue ongoing and planned projects as well as improve the transportation sector.
The DOTr bared its plan to prioritize the EDSA Carousel busway, active transport projects such as bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, the Cebu Bus Rapid Transit, the Davao High Priority Bus System, and the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program in 2022.
To date, the ongoing big-ticket projects of the DOTr include the North-South Commuter Railway System, the Metro Manila Subway Project currently at its first phase of construction, the LRT-1 Cavite Extension, the continued rehabilitation of the MRT-3, the MRT-7 and Common Station.
In the pre-construction phase are the PNR Bicol Express, the Tagum-Davao-Digos phase of the Mindanao Railway Project, the Subic-Clark Railway, the MRT-4 that will connect Metro Manila and the province of Rizal, and the LRT-2 West Extension.
It will also focus on a new phase of the service contracting program, the fuel subsidy program, and local infrastructure projects such as the Ilocos Norte Transport Hub and parking building and the El Nido Transport Terminal.
Bautista said he would adopt global best practices to make the Philippine transport sector at par with global standards, making sure that passengers enjoy safe and comfortable travel.
“Pag-aaralan natin [kung] anong ginagawa ng mga bansa na successful in implementing their transport programs and we will adopt iyong mga programs nila na talaga namang nag-benefit iyong mga passengers (We are going to study what successful countries are doing in implementing their transport programs and we will adopt those that are the most beneficial to passengers),” Bautista said in a Laging Handa briefing on July 11.
Rail transport upgrade, loan renegotiation
Following the withdrawal of funding for three rail programs -- the Subic-Clark Railway, the Philippine National Railways South Long Haul (Bicol Express), and the MRP -- Marcos wants more investments in the rail transport sector as he directed the DOTr to go back to the negotiating table to secure the loan agreements.
The three railway projects were to be funded under China’s official development assistance through loan agreements between the governments of the Republic of the Philippines and China.
In a recent Cabinet meeting, Transportation Undersecretary Cesar Chavez said Marcos commented that there should be more focus on rail transport.
China said it is “negotiating” with the Philippines over the funding for the three big-ticket railways after Chavez bared that these were deemed “withdrawn” due to Beijing’s inaction on funding requests by the previous administration.
In a statement, the Chinese Embassy did not directly mention the funding withdrawal but vowed to “tap its own advantage and support the Philippines to improve its infrastructure.” (With Angela Bianca Domingo and April Rose Peña/PNA)