Jeepney phaseout could hurt commuters, too

“Fare increases would serve as an incentive to move forward to modernization” – LTFRB

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The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) claims that its controversial jeepney modernization program only has the interest of commuters in mind. Phasing out the jeepneys and replacing them with vehicles that use modern engine (Euro 4) and designed to provide utmost safety (speed limiter, CCTV) and comfort (bigger space, wi-fi) will surely benefit the riding public, the said government body likes to stress.

To be sure, all these features and amenities that the LTFRB and Department of Transportation (DOTr) promise are welcome for commuters. What transport officials do not say is what or how much it would cost for the riding public to enjoy the supposedly modernized jeepneys under their plan.

At the hearing of the House of Representatives (HoR) on the modernization program, LTFRB chair Martin Delgra III said: “fare increases would encourage drivers and operators to take part in the modernization program, as these would cover losses, inflation or fuel price increases and serve as an incentive to move forward to modernization.”

DOTr Secretary Arthur Tugade also earlier said that the program is “designed to strengthen [and] to guarantee the profitability of the jeepney business”.

Clearly, the supposed modernization will not be cheap not only from the point of view of jeepney drivers and small operators but also of the commuters.

As fares are not subsidized by the state, commuters will have to shoulder the full cost of the pricey vehicles including interest payments owed to the banks, cost of maintaining and operating the units and their required terminals, taxes and fees owed to the government, income of drivers and operators, etc.

Taken with the unabashedly pro-big business policy direction being charted by the Duterte presidency, the threat of skyrocketing fares becomes even more imminent. Consider, for instance, the proposed Public Service Act amendment or House Bill (HB) 5828, one of the priority and urgent legislative measures of the administration. If passed by Congress, HB 5828 would allow public services like transportation to set rates (or fares) that would give its operators the maximum profit rates based on existing market condition. If that amount translates to a minimum fare of Php15, Php20 or even more, commuters will be left with no choice. Worse, deregulated rates or fares is also an option as stipulated in the Malacañang-backed HB 5828. Deregulated fares will actually be easier to implement with the planned beep cards. Now combine this with the long deregulated oil industry and the result would be catastrophic for commuters.

Do the small operators benefit from this lucrative jeepney business? Only if they could get a franchise under the demanding new guidelines of the LTFRB and meet the high capital requirement of managing a fleet of at least 10 vehicles (worth Php12 to 16 million), which is unlikely. Most of them would be certainly displaced by established business groups with access to capital (and political power). And these firms, under HB 5828, could be foreigners even. HB 5828 says transport is not a public utility and thus excluded from the constitutional restriction on foreign ownership.

Some commuters, of course, would be willing and able to pay a premium for better services. But most commuters of jeepneys are the lowest paid workers and are from the poorest households who struggle daily to make ends meet. They are the students from working class families. They are the self-employed and jobless. According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the average low income group households in the country have to spend at least 20% of their monthly household income for transportation. Soaring fares would push millions of Filipino commuters to greater poverty and marginalization.

What transport officials refuse to see is that modernization is not merely about replacing the old with the new. Modernization must above all be about long-term development that addresses the people’s basic needs and promotes their rights. When a society upgrades its ways of doing things, the primary objective should be to advance the interests of its people. If “modernization” comes at the expense of those who are already marginalized such as the poor jeepney drivers and commuters, then that is not development but regression. To ensure that genuine development comes with modernization, the state must play a central role.

But instead of addressing this question, the DOTr, LTFRB and President Duterte himself are creating an artificial contradiction between the interests of jeepney drivers/operators and the commuters. They absolve government of its duty to build a modern public transport system that protects both the welfare of the commuters and those who rely on it for livelihood. This as the apparent direction of the Duterte administration’s program is for big corporations to fully take over, push out the small drivers/operators and fleece the riding public with exorbitant fares.

The chronic state of disrepair of the country’s public transport system is the result of decades of government’s wrong policies, bureaucratic corruption and outright neglect.

Access to safe, efficient, reliable and affordable public transport system is a right that the state must guarantee for commuters and not a privilege for those who could afford it. What is the role of the government to ensure this? Is it simply to issue franchises and set standards? Why not start the discussion on jeepney modernization on these fundamental questions? ###