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Modernizing the way to the exclusion of some?

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PHILIPPINE STAR/WALTER BOLLOZOS

It was not exactly something the President would expect to greet him on his return from a six-day trip to San Francisco the other day. Instead of a huge crowd cheering him on like a world boxing champion, a transport strike on its second day rolled the welcome mat. Organized by PISTON, or Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operators Nationwide, the strike gathered more strength. A kindred spirit in another transport group, Manibela, announced that it was joining forces with PISTON to protest the government’s Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP). That would add some 150,000 to 200,000 in gravitas to the mass action.

This is literally a protracted battle for the transport group that claims, “the government has not given reasonable answers to our calls.”

The call is to repeal the PUVMP which would effectively phase out the iconic, irreverently colorful traditional jeepneys in favor of new generation transport vehicles by the end of 2023. This transition is actually off by three years having been originally launched in 2017 with a three-year window for the affected transport sector to prepare. Transport workers, both drivers and operators, are required to form corporations and cooperatives until the end of December this year and secure their respective franchises.

This is the essence of franchise consolidation.

To PISTON President Mody T. Floranda, consolidating franchises is a shift from individual franchises to group franchises, ushering in the phaseout of the jeepneys from the face of the cities, and, if they are lucky, to the hinterlands of the Philippines. We can share the sentiment of the striking transport sector that if no acceptable mitigants are introduced into the equation, no less than their livelihoods would be phased out.

Manibela head Mar Valbuena shared this sentiment, clarifying that “we are not doing this with the intention of making our kababayan (countrymen) suffer, we are doing this for us in the transport sector to be heard because what is at stake here is the main source of our livelihood.”

To us mere mortals of observers, the need of the hour is for the authorities to have a deeper understanding of where the transport workers are coming from. It is not enough to offer some numbers of adherents to the official program and therefore some may be left behind. At last Monday’s press briefing, the Vice-President who must have been asked to help, talked short of saying franchise consolidation is a done deal because the compliance rate among PUV drivers has reached around 70%. Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) would even cite that 90% of transport groups are behind the program so everybody else has no choice but to go along. But as PISTON explained, many of those who complied with the PUVMP were forced to by the authorities. “A majority of those who agreed to be consolidated were afraid and intimidated. Many of them want to withdraw from the agreement.”

The reason is affordability. Those who braved this program as implemented by the LTFRB reportedly expressed regret after the fact. They could not actually afford the monthly amortization. In many cases, these modern jeepneys had to be repossessed by financing institutions due to the drivers and operators’ failure to honor their financial commitment.

True, as the New York Times reported, the modern transport unit costs the equivalent of $43,600, is more energy-efficient, comfortable, and safe. But it is their cooperatives that would operate the units on a profit-sharing scheme that to many affected drivers would simply eat into their earnings and condemn them to debt.

While the transport groups consider the issue of affordability as more overriding, the authorities are more focused on the green benefits of the whole program. Modernizing transport is expected to reduce the use of fossil fuel, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic fumes, and other forms of air pollution. This involves the shift to electric vehicles or combustion engine compliant with the so-called Euro IV emission standards as prescribed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

But how far and how deep will the contribution of the modernization of the iconic jeepneys be to this green cause?

Rappler research indicates that, one, jeepneys estimated at 250,000 units comprise only 2% of the total registered vehicles in the whole of the Philippines; two, that jeepneys and other public utility vehicles contribute only 15% of the so-called total particulate matter emissions in Manila; three, the modern jeepney, priced at about P2.8 million, is nearly 1,800% more expensive than the iconic jeepney now valued up to P250,000; and, four, the government’s much vaunted subsidy of P160,000 covers only about 6% of the total cost of the modern jeepney.

It’s not really surprising therefore why these transport groups would call a general strike of their members, if only to force the issue for government to review this public policy now at full steam of implementation. They are a small speck in the general scheme of things to go green, both in number and in impact on the environment. Yet, the authorities would rather pin on them the burden of reducing gas emissions and air pollution when the many who may be able to pivot to more environment-friendly modern vehicles could do so in their own time. And what about those big industrial companies without wastewater treatment that literally poison our rivers and waterways?

Look at it this way: traditional jeepney drivers earn about P2,000 a day. If they decide to upgrade, they would need at least some P3,500 to pay off their debt. Their survival is at stake because the LTFRB has ruled that only operators who have consolidated into either a cooperative or a corporation are allowed to operate.

It would be good for the LTFRB to listen to the transport groups’ point about affordability. Past efforts failed because, like the current scheme, affordability prevented them from taking off the ground. In 2007, for instance, the plan was to replace old, polluting engines with new engines. But new engines were rather costly, rendering the whole plan unviable. It was subsequently shelved. In 2011, the use of LPG was proposed and jeepneys that survived on them became Euro III compliant. But implementing this scheme required some recalibration of both the engine and the transmission. LPG stations were also very few.

The LTFRB cannot also argue that as early as 2008, the first electric jeepneys were already introduced in Makati. Battery capacity was the problem then, and the modern vehicles were just confined to shorter routes. Even in Congress, an earlier proposal was put forward for vehicle subsidies, fuel subsidies, concessional loans and financial assistance to the affected transport workers. With the fiscal space continuing to narrow, this is like shooting for the moon. Try putting the Maharlika Investment Fund to work here, and if it succeeds perhaps our people’s apprehension might be eased somewhat!

Should the LTFRB and the rest of the bureaucracy cling to their concept, this continuing battle of the nerves may not cease. It will not help resolve this issue if the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority or MMDA would simply downplay the problems faced by the transport groups fighting for their livelihood. Yes, they recently prepared about 700 vehicles to ferry stranded commuters, while local governments launched their respective “libreng sakay” (free ride) programs. At the root, they are not exactly free because public money is also used.

The point is to listen to the affected transport sector. Some wise guys might argue the transport sector has been given enough time to prepare for such a transition that is long overdue. This is valid if significant changes have happened since 2007, that while transport fares have risen, oil prices have skyrocketed by so much more. Consumer prices, especially for the poorest among us, have escalated beyond the headline inflation. Jobs have not been forthcoming in a big way to offer alternatives to the transport sector. This is a serious matter for drivers who are not concerned for the phaseout of their old jeepneys, but perhaps of their own lives.

It’s high time that public policy stopped using the iconic jeepneys as symbolic of “our continuing effort as a response, of course, to climate change — to improve the mix of energy consumption and supply from the traditional fossil fuel to more renewable.” As the Green Network wisely stressed, “sustainability is more than just the environment… climate action should go hand-in-hand with social justice.”

It’s no doubt exhilarating if no one among us is left behind, even those mouthing such motherhood statements.

Diwa C. Guinigundo is the former deputy governor for the Monetary and Economics Sector, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). He served the BSP for 41 years. In 2001-2003, he was alternate executive director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC. He is the senior pastor of the Fullness of Christ International Ministries in Mandaluyong.

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