• No ‘golden age of infrastructure’ without public transport

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    Ben D. Kritz

    WHILE President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic managers were boasting about their administration’s grand plans for infrastructure development on Tuesday, about 200 kilometers away in Northern Luzon rescuers were scraping the smashed remains of a couple of dozen people off a mountainside. They were victims of yet another accident involving a public transit vehicle.

    In this case it was a bus, and it was as stereotypical as it gets in this country—poorly maintained, evidently driven by someone with little to no formal training, and carrying almost twice its rated passenger capacity. The exact circumstances of the crash, which occurred on a mountain road between Nueva Ecija and Nueva Vizcaya, are a bit uncertain; according to witnesses, the engine of the bus quit and the driver lost control while attempting to overtake another bus. Whatever the reason, the vehicle tumbled to the bottom of a 100-meter cliff, resulting in (as reported early Wednesday morning) 31 dead and 46 injured, among them several very young children.

    The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB, of the famed alphabet soup of government agencies), which tries and fails miserably to govern transportation in the Philippines, reacted in its typical fashion – suspending the operations of the bus company involved and launching an investigation.

    The LTFRB over the years has honed its skills at saying things that sound good in front of network news cameras or legislative inquisitors but accomplishing very little. The fact that a bus so manifestly unsafe was even on the road in the first place is reasonable evidence of that, and we can expect that little will change after this tragedy.

    The bus company will be penalized and may find itself put out of business entirely, but there will be precisely zero wider impact on the Philippines’ thoroughly dysfunctional public transportation infrastructure.

    Every post-Marcos administration of the Philippines has exhaled great volumes of stale breath in making “infrastructure development” a cornerstone of whatever cute sort of “-nomics” they contrive to solve all the country’s problems. The latest flavor, “Dutertenomics,” is such an ironic concept, as it is named for someone who professes to have no real knowledge of or interest in economics. The discussion of that concept the other day sounded an awful lot like the early-term braggadocio of the now thoroughly discredited former administration of BS Aquino 3rd, whose promise of 100 or more projects under the Public-Private Partnership program flopped spectacularly. So far, there is no real reason to believe the same thing won’t happen under the current government.

    Over the past dozen years, there has been some progress, but it has been achieved in piecemeal fashion at a painfully slow pace, to the extent that it is usually outgrown before it can even be put to use and makes no real difference to the overall infrastructure gap in the country. Red tape and pervasive corruption are, of course, well-known reasons for that, and it is along those lines that Duterte’s backers hope he can make some improvements.
    Perhaps he can, but even if he does, his grand plans for infrastructure development—the P8.4 trillion pesos the government intends to spend between now and 2022, would amount to about 9 percent of GDP—will still fall short, because it almost completely ignores mass transportation, just as his predecessors’ plans largely did. New highways that will only become clogged with the same unsafe, inefficient, World War II-era public transit framework are a little like putting on a tuxedo without taking a shower; the smell will soon cancel out any effect of a nice appearance.

    Among the several big projects discussed on Tuesday, only two—a subway system of questionable economic and engineering wisdom, and the long-planned extension of the Philippine National Railway line to the north and south—addressed public transportation at all. The assertion that this will help to diffuse economic gains across the classes is specious, because by ignoring public transit, government planners are ignoring the only means of movement for about 70 percent of the entire population.

    One thing that would at least begin to correct that oversight and not repeat the same error of the past couple of administrations would be to smack some sense into agencies like the LTFRB and Land Transportation Office, and compel them to improve the speed, efficiency and consistency of their own processes.

    In the past couple of years, regulations intended to provide safer public transportation vehicles and operations have been created, and are only intermittently enforced. Rules against overloading, for instance, have been on the books for years, and are brazenly flouted every day by every bus in the country; if the bus that crashed in Nueva Ecija had not been overloaded (there were 77 on board a bus with a posted capacity of 45), at least 30 people would not be in the hospital or the morgue now.

    ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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