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Passion For Reason

Good and bad reasons for MRT/LRT fare hike

/ 09:15 PM September 08, 2011

It’s about time to raise the fares for the elevated railways of Metro Manila, but it better be for the right reasons. There are enough good reasons to support the fare increase and that is why we must posthaste junk the bad ones.

Apparently each of the 1.2 million passengers who ride the trains daily enjoys a P48-subsidy for every P12-P15 one-way ticket. The government subsidy has now ballooned to an annual P7.2 billion.

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First off, it is incorrect to say that government subsidies for the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) and Light Rail Transit (LRT) are an unfair benefit for the passengers alone. The argument goes: Why indeed should all Filipino taxpayers pay for the benefits of the few? My answer: Because, to start with, it benefits more than just the 1.2 million commuters who actually ride the trains daily.

The MRT/LRT subsidy benefits all the commuters driving their cars on the roads below because, without the elevated trains, the traffic below would halt to a standstill. It’s not as if by subsidizing each of the 1.2 million daily train passengers, we are helping the passengers alone. There is a hidden benefit enjoyed by non-train riders, namely, all those people who drive or ride their cars and who – without knowing it, and thus without knowing they have government to thank for it – are able to drive faster and have shorter commutes.

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But if we accept the premise that invisible benefits accrue to a faceless public, why stop with the theoretically identifiable commuters along a free-flowing Edsa, Rizal Avenue and Taft Avenue? Surely there are “trickle-down” benefits enjoyed by all those using the side roads or, on an even larger scale, by all business transactions inside and outside Metro Manila that are facilitated by the faster movement of people in the metropolis.

Second, we must be careful when we benchmark the new MRT/LRT rates to existing fares charged by passenger buses. On the surface, it may make sense. Buses are operated by private business, bus fares represent the market value of the service rendered, every peso and centavo below market is a pure subsidy borne by the government. But we should treat that as the aberration and not the rule. Public transport is a public concern. There is a public interest in people’s mobility. That is why abroad the norm is that trains – whether elevated, surface or underground – are typically government-owned and subsidized.

To use a rather extreme example, I recall when I was a grad student, Boston’s subway, the “T,” offered free fares on New Year’s Eve each year. Apparently Boston would celebrate the New Year with a lot of booze (and minuscule fireworks, vastly different from Manila’s overnight war zone come each Jan. 1). The city, in order to support its “Don’t drink and drive” campaign, urged people to take the T instead of driving.

That was a policy decision, based on public safety concerns and the human toll of drunk driving accidents. That wasn’t a market-based decision using something akin to Jeremy Bentham’s “felicific calculus” of pain and pleasure, and calibrating how much the city would lose in potential fare income and how much it would save in the potential medical and police costs for all the ambulances and police cars placed on full alert on New Year’s Eve.

Third, that is why the starting point is not how much private operators charge for public transport, but rather how much the government is willing and able to pay to enable its citizens to go to work, to school, to shopping malls, to go to the palengke and the tiangge. If the starting point is how much the Filipino nation has at stake in enabling people’s mobility, then the best argument for the fare hike is the need to raise funds needed to maintain and upgrade MRT/LRT facilities.

As a frequent rider of late, I think that first and foremost, the train system needs more trains. People are packed like sardines but the trains are not frequent enough. The time gap between departing and incoming trains is actually long enough to allow at least one more train without compromising safety.

Also, I have taken the elevated trains in Bangkok and the subways in Hong Kong; I love taking city trains because I thus get a better feel of life in the places I visit, not the sanitized version I see as a tourist. Their air-conditioners work! Would you believe! Pwede pala yun! In the MRT/LRT system, it’s all hit-or-miss, depending on whether it’s your lucky day or not.

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We also need an integrated ticketing system, like Hong Kong’s Octopus card. Hereabouts, it’s bad enough that each train line belongs to a different system and you have to queue up for each ride, but the queues are long because the tickets are sold manually. There are vending machines, but they’re so few and always – and  I say always – there are broken machines.

Finally, both Bangkok and Hong Kong have integrated their train stops with shopping malls and air-conditioned connecting passages. The closest examples we have in Manila are at Trinoma, Gateway and Shangri-La. In Boston, the major T terminals have huge safe parking lots so that car owners are encouraged to leave their cars outside the city. Hereabouts, well, we find ways to do it without any government support.

I’m sure there are sophisticated technical improvements meaningful only to engineers, but the Department of Transport and Communications should at least let the public know.

The best way to convince the public to accept the MRT/LRT fare hikes is to show how the additional income will be plowed back into MRT/LRT operations, and to ensure that, unlike in the Arroyo government, that income will not yield more booty for another Jose Pidal account.

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TAGS: Consumer issues, MRT/LRT fare hike, opinion, Passion for Reason, Raul C. Pangalangan
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