• Getting there is no fun at all

    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    After having made a curiosity-fueled visit to the Metro Manila Development Authority’s new “Southwest Integrated Terminal [SIT]”—apparently no one, not even the MMDA, is exactly sure what to call the mess it has created—a day after its chaotic opening, I had an opportunity last week to make a follow-up visit, and to conduct an admittedly unscientific test of the impact of MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino’s masterpiece on an average commute.

    Despite the good chairman’s reassurances that the new scheme would improve as transport drivers and commuters “got used to it,” it has, if anything, gotten worse in terms of creating traffic congestion, commuter discomfort, and general confusion without making a visible dent in the volume of traffic beyond the new terminal.

    My “test commute” was a trip during Friday morning rush hour from my home in suburban Cavite to the offices of The Manila Times in Intramuros, Manila, a fairly average distance for the vast number of commuters now affected by the new terminal. Prior to the implementation of the new scheme, the best mass transit option for my particular trip was to take a bus bound for the Lawton terminal, an easy ten-minute walk from The Times offices; in ordinary morning traffic, this trip would take about an hour and cost P31 in fare. Since my income is probably not typical, to determine what that hour is worth, I’ll borrow a figure from one of neighbors who works in the same area and earns a little more than P500 a day; a ten-hour work day (one hour to commute to and from work with eight hours on the job in between) therefore is worth P50 an hour, making the actual one-way cost of my average example commute prior to the MMDA’s meddling P81.

    As I discovered last Friday, however, the most efficient route available now involves taking a bus to the new terminal, transferring to a jeepney to travel to the LRT station, then taking the LRT to Central Station (adjacent to the Lawton terminal), all of which takes just a few minutes short of two hours and costs a total of P50 in fares. Thus the actual one-way cost of my example commute has increased to P150, or P69 more than it was before.

    Assuming this is fairly representative of the additional burden placed on commuters, multiplying that additional figure by the number of commuters passing through the new terminal represents the cost of lost productivity created by the MMDA’s hare-brained scheme. Unfortunately, there are no reliable estimates of the number of commuters—the MMDA doesn’t know, since all its data is based on the number of vehicles rather than actual people, who are at best an afterthought to the agency. Commuter advocates and transport groups have placed the estimate as high as 200,000 entering and leaving the city each workday. Based on a quick survey of bus drivers, most of whom said they arrive and depart the terminal twice during each morning and afternoon rush hour period, and the MMDA’s published figures for the vehicle capacity of the terminal (955 buses and 326 other vehicles such as jeepneys), the estimate would be about 147,000 traveling one-way. At an average additional cost of P69 a person, this means that the Southwest Integrated Terminal is costing the economy something between P20 million and P28 million a day—roughly the amount spent by the MMDA to open the terminal in the first place.

    Granted, the counter-argument to the charge that the new terminal, besides being manifestly unpleasant, is economically unsound is that the reduction in traffic elsewhere (a chronic problem to which a lost productivity cost of P2.4 billion a day has been ascribed, although the source of that figure has not been explained) makes up for the added cost. While certainly not a scientific observation, the volume of traffic certainly appears to be no different than it was before; even Manila’s heralded “bus ban” enacted prior to the opening of the SIT apparently had only a temporary effect, as traffic on the chronically-congested Taft Avenue has returned to its old state. The new scheme may be making a difference, but if so, it is a very subtle improvement, and one that has only been achieved by persecuting an entire economic class—the one that, MMDA Chairman Tolentino and his boss and good buddy President Benigno Aquino 3rd should be reminded, is largely responsible for keeping the city functioning in a productive way.

    Nor can these commuters look forward to any sort of alternative any time soon; on Friday, the Department of Transportation and Communications announced that the bidding for the Light Rail Transit-1 extension to Bacoor, Cavite—which at this point is best regarded as a 20-year-old pipe dream—would be delayed again, for the nth time. Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Abaya at first suggested that the bidding process would have to be scrapped and started over from scratch because the only remaining qualified bidder, the Manny Pangilinan-led Metro Pacific Investments Corp., had imposed conditions on its bid. Abaya later modified his statement, however, saying that the bidding terms “would have to be reassessed,” but that construction would proceed as promised in the second half of 2014, a reassurance that convinces exactly no one at this point.

    Besides the government’s strategic and moral error in focusing on “vehicles” instead of “people” in trying to manage transportation, the really galling thing about the underlying concept of the SIT—and likewise, the two other impending disasters in the form of similar terminals to open later this year in Quezon City and Muntinlupa—is how transparently political it is. Metro traffic congestion is not caused by “provincial buses”—if it was, their absence would have resulted in an obvious improvement, which has not occurred. Dealing with the more direct sources of congestion—the city network of buses, jeepneys, FX taxis, tricycles, and other assorted conveyances—is political unpalatable, however. The provincial commuters and the bus companies who transport them are not the MMDA’s constituency; if they were to take action in protest such as staging a boycott or a “transport strike,” so much the better as far as the MMDA is concerned. If the city drivers were to do that—something that has happened many times in the past, albeit with less-than-decisive results—the results could be chaotic. Thus Francis Tolentino and his boss (who likely has never gotten within 50 yards of a bus, let alone experienced the unique joy of riding one with 70 other people), target their regulatory efforts towards the lowest-hanging fruit and the least of the problem.

    And the outcome has been totally unsurprising: Not only has the new scheme not solved anything, it has made circumstances much worse for a great many people, any one of whom could have easily told the concerned officials that beforehand, if they’d only bothered to ask.


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