Run over twice
Announced in the midst of the Christmas season—when the riding public would be hard put to summon the numbers to stage the expected protests, and when there was no one in the government to answer questions—the 50-90-percent fare increase in MRT and LRT rides couldn’t have come at a worse time.
The increase came as a nasty surprise to commuters who, for lack of viable options in the country’s debilitated transport system, have endured poor service and a series of MRT mishaps in recent months: from derailment to breakdowns, to overcrowding, long lines, and elevators and escalators that do not work. It’s like they’ve been run over twice.
All these aggravations speak of wasted productivity and a resulting loss of income for daily-wage earners, unnecessary anxiety and inconvenience among commuters, especially students on a tight budget, not to mention dire risks to life and limb, as when a train slammed through steel barriers last August.
Adding to the commuters’ grief is the lack of consultation or public hearing often granted petitioners against even the slightest increase in oil prices.
But Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya has a ready answer to the protests, citing the government’s increasing subsidy to the MRT system, the need for funds to rehabilitate the trains overly taxed by a daily load of 1.3 million commuters, and the relatively low fares compared to other Asian countries.
The P1-billion expected revenue from the fare increase will go a long way to improve train services and replace the now-corroded rails, Abaya said.
But petitioners against the fare increase have cited reports that the additional revenue would go to the millions of pesos paid monthly to private concessionaires who own the train line, raising alarm bells and dredging up memories of anomalies that hound the MRT-LRT train system.
Who can forget the lucrative maintenance deal entered into by former MRT general manager Al Vitangcol in 2013 that was negotiated privately with a two-month-old undercapitalized company consisting of Liberal Party members and Vitangcol’s uncle-in-law, and subsequent accusations of extortion by a Czech diplomat?
Sen. Grace Poe, who once rode the MRT during rush hour to get a feel of the riding public’s ordeal, described the fare increase as “treacherous,” pointing out that Congress had already approved allocations for MRT and LRT in the P2.606-trillion 2015 national budget: P2 billion in subsidy for the improvement of the rail and signaling system, and another P7 billion from unprogrammed funds for the MRT’s rehab.
Indeed, even Malacañang has assured the riding public that should the Supreme Court grant petitioners a temporary restraining order on the fare increase, the planned rehab of the ailing rail system would proceed, as the government had freed up P2 billion in funds for an upgrade of the trains.
Given Abaya’s contrary claims about the need for funds to improve services, Poe said the Senate would invite him to a hearing after Pope Francis’ visit. As well it should. Abaya has much explaining to do—from how the train management has come up with the rate of fare increase (unclear and puzzling, to say the least, considering how fuel prices have been plunging in recent months), to how exactly income from the increase would be used, given ready sources of alternative funds for the MRT rehab.
He must also explain how building two stations—instead of a common one—would be more economical and practical for commuters of the next MRT line bridging Bulacan and Cavite. Were the two stations an accommodation to rival malls that stand to get more business with a train terminal within their premises?
It seems that doing business is Abaya’s strong point, and sensitivity to public sentiments his weakest. The man once took up the challenge of riding the trains to see for himself what the ruckus was all about. He took the ride at an unholy hour with a gaggle of aides, got on the coach reserved for women and the elderly, and duly informed management about the august event in advance—and, not surprisingly, raved about the experience.
This is the man who saw the long lines and overcrowded trains as proof that the MRT remains the favored means of transportation for those who have to traverse Edsa. The MRT must be a godsend; look what people put up with to ride it, he must have thought.
Did he miss the train? Yes, and also the forest for the trees.
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