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08:10 PM September 7th, 2013

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September 7th, 2013 08:10 PM

Everything started with the best of intentions and the gravest of needs. A study by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency had stated the problem in stark terms: Metro Manila was losing P2.4 billion a day in possible income due to the heavy traffic that eats away at the daily productivity of 14 million commuters. Last year, President Aquino signed Executive Order 67 calling for the building of three new centralized transportation hubs by 2016. By severely limiting or perhaps even banning the entry of provincial buses into Metro Manila, the EO sought to cut down on congestion in the big city.

But the horrific traffic situation has gotten so bad that last July 16, Mr. Aquino issued Administrative Order 40 mandating the establishment of three “interim” terminals for provincial buses. These were intended to help ease the congestion until the permanent terminals are finished.

Under the purview of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, the Southwest Interim Transport Terminal (SITT) was the first of the temporary terminals to be completed. Located at the Uniwide Coastal Mall in Parañaque City, the SITT is where Metro Manila-bound buses from the provinces of Batangas and Cavite are to unload their passengers.

The SITT was unpopular from the get-go. “It seems that those who want this centralized traffic system implemented [did not conduct] a proper study to back their plan,” observed Elvira Medina of the group National Center for Commuter Safety and Protection. “They probably did not realize the possible repercussions [on] commuters and traders…” Still, the SITT began operations last Aug. 6, with MMDA Chair Francis Tolentino saying he expected “some confusion” at the start. “But we promise the public that the transition will be smooth.”

Well, the transition has been anything but smooth. Commuters waited in interminable queues for idle buses; others found themselves completely stranded. The complaint of student Cedyqueen del Rosario summed up the weary commuters’ travails: “There were only a few PUVs (public utility vehicles) going to Lawton (in Manila), and they were not organized. There was no proper queue, so even those who got here later than the others were able to get their next ride first.” And not only was her ride longer and more complicated, the trip now cost more: “I used to pay only P40 to get to Lawton. Now I would have to pay P33 just to get to Coastal Mall, and more for the UV Express.”

“I knew about [the opening of this interim terminal]. I just didn’t expect it to be this chaotic,” she said.

The complaints haven’t stopped, and more problems have since cropped up. A strike was called by supposed renegade bus drivers even as the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board warned that bus operators caught participating in strikes could lose their franchises. The MMDA suggested a cut in the fare for buses using the SITT. The bus operators were not amused.

“We would like to question the legality of the administrative order issued by the LTFRB amending the routes of the buses from Cavite and Batangas without a public hearing,” warned Ferdinand Wackay, legal counsel for the United Cavite Bus Transport. Meanwhile, commuters continue to fume and call for a return to the old system even as construction continues on a larger, nearby structure—the actual “permanent” transport terminal, the “real” Southwest Terminal once it’s done.

The MMDA and the LTFRB are digging in for the long haul, as they should. The Aquino administration has a long-term plan for the terminals, with the goal of profoundly easing the traffic problems of the big city. When the permanent Southwest Terminal and the two other terminals planned for Quezon City and Muntinlupa City are completed, the government’s overhaul of the bus system should work. We expect nothing less.

The long-suffering public, commuters and motorists alike, is being called upon to look at the big picture. In the interim, it behooves the MMDA and its contractors to improve the operations of the interim terminal in order to provide for the comfort and convenience of the riding public to the extent possible, and to speed up work on the permanent terminals. The public’s patience, as well as continuing innovations on this work in progress, is clearly required for this particular private-public partnership to work. Enduring this test may be a big step forward. Or so we hope.

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