In the view of many, his must be the most thankless, most stressful and least rewarding job in the metropolis, if not the entire country. But Metro Manila Development Authority Chair Francis Tolentino, three years into his six-year term, still looks as youthful as when he assumed his post, although there seems to be a permanent scowl on his brow, perhaps a result of dealing with multifarious problems even as brickbats are constantly thrown his way.
He is, so we joked at yesterday’s “Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel,” the man of the hour. He is the man at the center of a media (including, or especially social media) storm in the wake of last week’s “Monday madness” when much of the metropolis was brought to a standstill by the rains and consequent floods.
His name is first on the lips of exasperated motorists who face frustrating delays sometimes lasting for hours whenever traffic crawls to a halt. And I’m sure his face is what so many “informal settlers” see in their sleep as they toss and turn, worrying whether they will be out of a home and livelihood once their settlements are demolished and they are moved to relocation sites.
But, Tolentino says in his defense, the efforts of the MMDA to ease traffic congestion, address the perennial flood problem, and deal with informal settlements—just three items in a long shopping list of problems—are all just parts of a broader government program that involves many other departments, to cure the ills of the megacity.
But being the “face” of urbanization’s problems was surely not among Tolentino’s aspirations in his younger years. Still, if his proposed solutions work and manage to turn this blighted metropolis from the “gates of hell” to the “gateway to paradise,” then perhaps bearing the slings and arrows of public censure would be all worth it.
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It doesn’t help, he says, that people tend to take a simplistic approach toward the many problems Metro Manila faces.
Take flooding. “A flood control plan goes beyond drainage,” Tolentino says. True, the government is moving mightily to clear the waterways which were once used to drain rainwater from low-lying city areas. Aside from dredging and clearing esteros, the MMDA has begun moving informal settlers away from creeksides and riverbanks.
For now, he says, some 8,000 families are being relocated to inland settlements, starting with those living along the San Juan River. The National Housing Authority is also building 920 houses for those living along the Manggahan floodway.
But Tolentino says we also need to look at the land use policy, adding that whereas before “25 percent of Metro Manila consisted of open spaces, now we are down to 10 percent.” He also cites how local governments have enforced or failed to enforce building codes and land use plans, including building over alluvial plains that were meant to absorb river overflows. “We also need to look at how we live and consume,” he says.
And just to prove how seriously he takes the flooding problem, Tolentino has just moved his office from Edsa to a building across from UST on España where the worst flooding usually occurs, the better to respond to flooding complaints and act on problem areas.
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As for that perennial bane of city life, traffic, Tolentino says he has a five-point plan that he hopes to implement before the yearend and beyond. (Promise, ha?)
First is “an organized bus dispatch system” that would regulate the number of public buses plying city streets at certain hours, enforced through a system of checkpoints, tollgates and numbered bus stops.
Second is a network of “integrated provincial bus terminals,” a plan that Tolentino dates to as far back as 1950 but which was never put in place. This involves setting up three bus terminals (initially managed by the government) for buses coming from the north (in Trinoma), south (along Coastal Road) and Southwest (in Alabang), the last managed by the MMDA. The terminals are meant to prevent traffic buildup near the terminals that are now scattered all over the Metro, and to ensure that provincial buses are no longer added to the number of vehicles clogging the streets.
Third is establishing a network of what Tolentino terms “reversible zipper lanes,” roads that can be closed or opened to accommodate counterflow to ease traffic during rush hours. There are many such “zipper lanes” in use around the world, says the MMDA chair, with the ultimate aim of “encouraging carpooling” as only vehicles with a minimum number of passengers can use the special lanes.
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Fourth, and I’m sure the most controversial measure, is an “all-day truck ban” that has already been tried with some success, the most recent example being during the Christmas season. Tolentino offers some data to demonstrate the extent of the problem: more than 11,000 trucks entering Metro Manila from the south (through SLEx) every weekday; more than 12,000 trucks coming from the north (through NLEx); almost 10,000 trucks from the east; and more than 4,000 trucks passing through MacArthur Highway.
“A total of 39,543 cargo trucks (six-wheelers and above) pass through the city each day,” he says.
To objections (by the trucking industry) that imposing a truck ban would mean a rise in the prices of consumer goods, Tolentino says the limited hours of operation can be offset by reduced expenses for gasoline incurred during traffic jams, less congestion and perhaps more turnaround time.
The fifth plan involves reducing the number of U-turn slots (beloved of Tolentino’s predecessor) and the use of “intelligent” traffic lights to better regulate the often-chaotic traffic situation. In all, not a bad menu of solutions—if they will work!