EDSA TRAFFIC! Daang Masikip

Prof. Dindo Manhit, President at the Stratbase ADR Institute

Because of a protest action of the influential Iglesia ni Cristo on EDSA weeks ago, this government’s trumped up “straight path” was reduced to BS when, for hours, commuters couldn’t get anywhere. From a nuisance, the traffic mess has become a political issue, and many are not happy with how this administration is handling things.

If anything, the rally exposed how vulnerable Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare is to such disturbances, and how the country’s infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired. Many believe that if a decent mass transportation system was only in place, the Iglesia rally would not have had such a disastrous effect.

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Instead, the 2.5 million commuters who routinely ply EDSA spent hours stuck on the road, fuming mad and no doubt trying to mentally will the unmoving traffic to move. In a better world, commuters could have turned to an efficient Metro Rail Transit (MRT) and travel several meters above the protesters, or the subway to go under them. They could have taken an alternative bus route or a series of elevated highways and connector roads linking the north and south sides of the metro.

Alas, these are only possible in the imagination.

In the real world, Metro Manila’s would-be subway, which would cut across the central business districts in Makati and Bonifacio Global City, is stuck in the planning stages. The bid terms for the connector road linking North Luzon Express Way and South Luzon Expressway has been pushed back to the end of the year. The MRT Line 3 has been operating at 152% capacity since 2004. A recent study revealed that the Philippines has the fifth worst road traffic in the world. Most rush hour nights, many commuters feel we were cheated in this ranking and should be higher in the list.

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Certainly, it’s clear that the country didn’t need a protest action in the middle of EDSA on payday Friday to realize that Metro Manila’s transportation infrastructure is subpar. For years, it has been the gripe of many Filipinos, who often have no other resort but to air their frustrations on Facebook and Twitter.

The business sector has also spoken out against the worsening transportation situation. According to the Management Association of the Philippine (MAP), traffic congestion is not just a problem in Metro Manila, but even in places like Cebu, Tarlac, Pangasinan, Baguio, Davao and Zamboanga.

The clamor is further amplified in social media by ranting posts of MRT commuters who languish in long lines for hours a day under the El Nino weather. A major transport artery that the government took over to clean up operations is the MRT but like so many government projects burdened by bureaucratic culture, efficiency and safety has deteriorated to less than acceptable levels.

In an open letter to President Aquino last week, MAP drew up a list of recommendations that the government can try. These include appointing a traffic czar and creating a highway patrol under him, improving road engineering, fast-tracking MRT upgrades, and upgrading national roads into express. Medium and long-term recommendations include restructuring the way Metro Manila is governed and facilitating other mass transit systems, such as a high-capacity subway system under the entire length of EDSA.

In Manila, the local government tried to clear the narrow streets of the port area with a truck ban that caused an unprecedented congestion in the country’s premier port facility. The economic costs of the delays sparked a chain reaction of lost revenues for thousands of enterprises and higher prices for millions of consumers estimated to be in the billions. The port congestion is caused by road congestion. Only a well-executed road and railway solution will solve this problem and most important boost various industries because goods can come in and out at a shorter turnaround time.

Perhaps a reaction to the public’s uproar against the worsening traffic situation, President Aquino and the National Economic Development Authority Board approved five new projects worth a total of P131.4 billion to improve transportation and power generation just a few days ago. These include the P64.71 billion Light Rail Transit (LRT) 6, that will serve the Cavite areas and a P43.89 billion LRT Line 4, which will link EDSA to Taytay, Rizal. Also approved by Aquino was a passenger terminal building in the Clark International Airport and the Naga Airport development project.

Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. had said that Aquino recognizes the importance of improved infrastructure in sustaining long-term economic growth. In a 2014 Japan International Cooperation Authority (JICA) study, some P2.4 billion is lost to traffic each day. Without intervention, this figure could increase to P6 billion a day by 2030. The toll is hardest in low income group households, which spend no less than a fifth of their monthly household income on transportation alone.

The approval of the big ticket infrastructure projects is a step in the right direction, but these much-needed improvements cannot come faster. There is interest from the private sector, but the rest of the process is slow and bugged down by bureaucracy. Of the over 50 public-private partnership projects in the pipeline, only 10 have been awarded. Instead of a the much hyped  PPP we will be left with a backlog  of critical infrastructure projects and appeals from government spokespersons for more patience and understanding.

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What we need is more Political will. No more excuses. For an administration that trumpets a “daan”-inspired slogan, this “daan” better be free-flowing and uncongested.

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