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‘Beep’ card for convenience

Fans of Korean TV dramas may be familiar with scenes showing a character boarding a bus and touching his/her hips on a device, or else taking out a wallet and touching it to the monitor. They’re not dancing or showing off their latest designer accessory, they’re actually using the “automated fare collection system.” The system uses an activated card “loaded” with a fixed amount for a single ride or multiple rides, and the card can be accessed even if it’s kept in a wallet, bag, or someone’s back pocket.

In the Philippines, the card, to be known as the “beep” card, will soon be used by passengers on the MRT/LRT. They system is meant to ease the congestion created by thousands of commuters lining up to buy tickets, and lessen the time needed to insert and collect the cards through slots.

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When the “beep” card is fully rolled out by September, said Peter Maher, chief executive officer of AF Payments Inc. which won the bid for the ticketing system, passengers on the commuter lines would be able to load the card for as low as P12 or a maximum of P10,000. This should be enough, I would think, to cover a commuter’s daily fare for four years, after which the card expires. Still, it is possible to “top up” the card’s stored value anytime, as well as use the discount available to card holders toward the end of a card’s stored value.

What about the senior citizen’s discount? To take advantage of this discount, said Maher, one would have to register as a senior citizen (or a person with disability) and wait a few days before picking up the discounted fare cards. The young ladies at our table at the Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel looked at one another and sighed. Indeed, it is enough of a challenge as it is to simply climb the stairs to the station platform; asking us to make another trip to collect our 20-percent discount might be too much for our delicate constitutions to handle.

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An even more interesting back story is that AF Payments Inc. is a consortium of Ayala and First Pacific, which by itself means it’s got much of the country’s big money covered. It was awarded the project by the Department of Transportation and Communications in January 2014.

“We hope to convince more riders to use the stored-value cards,” said Maher, who is by the way Irish and whose business background is in credit cards, rather than transportation. What causes much of the congestion in stations these days are the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of passengers queueing up every day to buy a one-way or two-way card. Certainly, only a few MRT/LRT users can afford the P10,000 maximum value. But why not shell out, say, P1,000 on payday if only in terms of time saved?

“We’re only concerned with ticketing,” Maher rushed to clarify when questions about the lack of trains and the maintenance (or lack of it) of the rails came raining down. But already, AF Payments is looking at other applications for its “beep” cards, such as using these to pay for tolls, as fare on buses, taxis and maybe even jeepneys, and even in retail outlets. Their vision, said the Irishman, is to make the “beep” card “part of every Filipino’s life.”

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More than transportation, or even electricity, water is a valuable, necessary commodity, a social need. After all, one can survive even without leaving one’s home, or even without power, such as when a storm knocks down electric posts. But can we live without water? Certainly not!

Which is why the current controversy between the two water concessionaires—Manila Water and Maynilad—and their regulator, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), is or should be of interest even to ordinary Metro Manila residents. For at stake is not just water rates and our monthly water bills, but also the safety of our water supply, the availability of allied services like wastewater and sewerage disposal, and the continued reliability of supply.

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Ostensibly carried out in behalf of the water-consuming public, the MWSS’ recent actions and decisions seem to be threatening the continued viability and quality of the service provided by their concessionaires. All we have to do is look back to the days before privatization when MWSS presided over a water delivery system that was inefficient, inadequate and of dubious safety to realize what we—and not just Manila Water or Maynilad—stand to lose.

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A Manila Water representative pointed out that the concession agreement it signed with the MWSS, at a time when the government was hard put to rationalize the failing water system, allowed for a periodic rate rebasing review every five years. Such exercises took place without much trouble in previous years, until MWSS officials recently balked at granting a new rate increase to cover the period between 2013 and 2017.

The negotiations went through arbitration, but the result for Manila Water has been a “confusing” decision that deemed it a public utility—this, even if Manila Water has long operated as a contractor—with the MWSS acting as regulator. Moreover, a different appeals panel hearing the petition of Maynilad ruled that it continues to be a contractor and agent of the MWSS, which remains a public utility.

Manila Water asks: Who holds ultimate accountability for the service it provides in its area, and what is the MWSS’ responsibility? Who sets the “service obligation targets”? Who is in charge of water source development? (It used to be the MWSS.) Who owns assets like dams, canals, etc.? Does Manila Water need a congressional franchise, if it is a public franchise?

Manila Water says that it has “significantly improved services over almost 18 years.” If so, why is it seemingly being penalized now?

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TAGS: AF Payments Inc., Beep card, LRT, Manila Water, Maynilad, MRT, MWSS
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