All roads lead to Clark

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Marlen V. Ronquillo

THE late Fred de la Rosa, during his time as Times editor, urged me to write about regional developments that intersect seamlessly with urgent national priorities. There is one at Clark right now and it is about transport and mobility, now considered by many as the fourth rail of democracy. There is no gore, blood and mayhem. but it is still worth writing about.

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Here is the bloodless but still important story.

Before the current months ends, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) would have lifted a symbolic bar to rollout a modern bus off the grounds of the Clark Special Economic Zone. Whether it has passengers or not, the bus will serve its assigned route and final destination, the NAIA Terminals. A direct trip, no pick-ups along the way and reconfigured to fit the requirements of an express, luxury bus. The next bus, after the initial run, will serve Clark–North EDSA, with the end-point at a giant mall. The transportation secretary, Arthur Tugade, is scheduled to do the lifting of the bar.

Brand new and commissioned just for the Clark to North EDSA to NAIA run. It will be, for all intents and purposes, a pioneering run.

You might say it will be just another bus run. So, where does the regional development and national interest intersect? Plenty.

Without fanfare, and with no one from the media in attendance, the Land Transport Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) recently ended its 20-year or so moratorium on the grant of provincial bus franchises with a public auction of 48 provincial franchises, with Clark as base and with two points in Metro Manila (NAIA Terminals and North EDSA as southern end points. That alone would make the Clark run a milestone in land transport. There is more. In the time of DU30, the DOTr/LTFRB decided to tweak and improve on the old concept of provincial bus franchises.

Put up for public bidding were provincial franchises of another kind – Point to Point (P2P) franchises that have to be express trips, to be exclusively served by brand new buses, and designed for an upscale market that have to charge non-upscale fares. High-end buses at the usual fares. Take it or leave it, the LTFRB told the bus companies that participated in the prequalification round.

Provincial buses that will not participate in the pick-up and drop-off melees at EDSA.

The commencement of the Clark-centric P2P runs will usher in a mode of provincial bus franchising that aims to connect viable commuter routes, via non-stop service, with the departure and arrival schedules almost predictable.

The DOTr and the LTFRB, after the Clark run, will probably end the old mode of the traditional bus operations and put in place all P2P runs with the Metro Manila traffic gridlocks in mind. Baguio City to Manila may be the next locale of the P2P runs, given the importance of Baguio City as a tourism and educational hub.

Provincial buses of the future will not have the luxury of hogging the roads for pick-ups and drop-offs. That is an overhaul of the bus franchising concept provided for under the current Public Service Law.

That Clark was chosen as the base of the first provincial bus franchise awards after a moratorium of more than 20 years is not at all surprising. Clark is a manufacturing center, a tourist destination, host to many BPOs and host to the major retailers. On top, of course, is the presence of the Clark International Airport, which is the de facto gateway when flights have to be diverted from the NAIA. A Green City is forthcoming and space for expansion is boundless.

Good tertiary schools and good technical schools ring Clark and that assures the ample supply of competent warm bodies for the white collar and blue collar positions that have to be filled up.

Next month, the DOTr in full will start holding office inside Clark. Tugade, the DOTr secretary, used to head the Clark Development Corp.

The Tutuban-Clark rail connection will probably be in place before 2020 or sooner. Literally, all roads lead to Clark.

Genesis Transport, the winner of the first bid for provincial bus franchises , said that other than the symbolism attached to winning the first bus franchises after a long moratorium, it is also looking into the commercial viability of a P2P run that connects two international airports. The traffic is probably there and marketing may be the weak link , its officials say.

This is their version of the P2P route. Run the buses and the passengers will come. In the initial run, though, it expects losses.

In September of 1991, after the Senate voted down the RP-US Military Bases Agreement, the hopeful voices that said Clark would be better off as a commercial entity rather than hosting the largest air force base outside of Continental US were drowned by the pessimistic voices. These voices of pessimism said that Clark would never rise from the ashes of Pinatubo.

Today has eviscerated all the pessimism and doubts about the future of Clark. The air of optimism is infectious. The giddiness of the bus company may have solid basis. Run them and the passengers will come.

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