I fully concur with the opinions of this paper, Sen. Grace Poe, several minority Congressmen, a number of citizens’ groups, and several hundred thousand irritated commuters that the imminent fare hike to be imposed on riders of the capital’s light rail systems is one of the worst decisions ever made by President B.S. Aquino 3rd and his thoroughly ineffective Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, and must be stopped at once.
The decision is, under the circumstances, so unjustifiably punitive against the public that if this were a normal country it might cost Aquino and Abaya their jobs, and probably those of Malacañang Talking Persons Sonny Coloma and Abigail Valte as well, who have filled the holiday airwaves and newspaper pages with insulting defense of the move.
The reasoning given by the Administration is that it is unfair to taxpayers in other parts of the country to be subsidizing fares for commuters in Metro Manila; the P15 fare on the two Light Rail Transit lines (LRT-1 and LRT-2) and the frightening Metro Rail Transit line (MRT-3) is subsidized by an additional P40 from the government, according to Secretary Abaya. Raising the fares – from a maximum of P15 to P28 on the MRT-3, from P20 to P30 on the LRT-1, and from P15 to P25 on the LRT-2—will, Abaya and his fellow conspirators have said, free up P2 billion annually that can be spent on social programs elsewhere.
That is an extremely immature rationale, and all concerned should be ashamed of themselves for even thinking of something so stupid and unproductive. If we were to follow that line of thought, then every taxpayer in the eight of seventeen regions that were not at all affected by Typhoon Yolanda should demand that none of their funds be used to shelter and feed displaced persons or rebuild homes and livelihoods. Everyone living outside the city limits of Zamboanga should likewise demand that no money beyond that generated by Zamboangueños themselves be used for the long-delayed recovery from that city’s mini-war in September 2013.
The suggestion that funds should be cross-applied to other, unrelated purposes is insulting as well. Faced with daily overcrowding, frequent breakdowns, and equipment and personnel shortages, the light rail network’s commuters are in effect being told that will be subsidizing other projects with the higher fares they pay, while no clear plan to halt and reverse the visible deterioration of all three lines is offered as an exchange.
Nor does the sleazy way in which the fare increase was presented – as an aside during the holiday season, while not so much as hinting at it in hearings on the MRT-3 held by Senator Poe as recently as December 17 – impress anyone as being sincere. (At the risk of running afoul of Godwin’s Law, my recent re-reading of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich compels me to point out that Hitler was fond of pulling surprises on weekends and holidays as well, when potential opponents would be unable to respond quickly.) In addition, the arbitrary announcement without having held public hearings on the matter (the most recent was in 2011) is an apparent violation of the law, although that will be a question for the courts to decide.
Interestingly, the last time the question of a fare increase was raised, in mid-January of this year, Abaya said the DOTC was considering a P5 increase by August, presumably to help fund the procurement of new train cars. Shortly afterward, however, the agency said the fare hike would be deferred because there was “no urgent need to increase fares at the moment.”
Bad taste and misanthropy aside, what is really disturbing about the decision to raise rail fares is the unanswered economic questions it raises. Of the P55 actual fare, the cost per passenger has been reported as P53. At roughly 560,000 riders per day, that means the MRT-3 has a daily operating cost of P29.7 million. Typically, the MRT can only muster 49 or 50 out of 72 car units that should be plying the line due to maintenance issues. Without taking into account the other common shortcomings encountered by commuters – elevators and escalators that do not function, understaffed ticket booths, and the general unpleasantness of unmaintained facilities – the implication is the line operating at near full-capacity would actually cost about P42.8 million per day, or a whopping P76.37 per passenger, which is about P4.52 per passenger per kilometer.
Whether that cost is realistic or not is a question no one seems to be able to answer. In studies of similar large-city transportation networks (mainly in Latin America) that have a similar mix of transportation options and economies that are comparable to Metro Manila, the indication is that the cost per passenger kilometer for “metro,” or light rail transport, should be closer to $0.06 to $0.07, or about P3 per passenger kilometer. At its current apparent cost, about $0.11 per passenger kilometer, the light rail system is closer to jeepneys in terms of efficiency.
No fare hike should be permitted until a thorough financial analysis of the light rail system is conducted and presented to the public for examination. While the idea that a transportation system should largely support its own costs through user fares is reasonable, the customers of that system should also be assured that the fares they pay are in fact being used for the proper maintenance of a safe, convenient system, and not being justified for some nebulous unrelated purpose. The onerous, people-hating decision of the Aquino cabal is almost certainly headed for a court challenge; let’s hope the court has enough sense to order it held in abeyance until a more productive decision can be considered in detail and properly applied.