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Undeterred by a series of failures, DOTr set to implement new policies for public transport

The Department of Transportation led by its charismatic head, Secretary Arthur Tugade, has been on a roll lately. As the DOTr’s 18th chief, Secretary Tugade, together with  his hardworking team, are working in earnest to institute reforms that will modernize the country’s once deteriorating transportation system. And so far, so good. 

When the revitalized DOTr took on the task of fixing the various modes of transportation in the country in 2016, it seemed to face an almost insurmountable task. For four years now, the department not only had to deal with poorly maintained infrastructure, or the lack of it, but it also had to go against a decrepit culture of corruption and an institutionalized laissez-faire attitude that gave the old saying, “Why fix it it ain’t broke?” a sick, twisted meaning. 

While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the pace of progress, it did give the Department a free pass when it came to fast-tracking the reforms it set out to do. When the economy was shut down last March, all forms of transportation also came to a halt. COVID-19 and ECQ did what no other administration was able to do, rid our streets of old and worn down modes of transportation.

Because of the pandemic, jeepneys and buses along with trains, planes and ships were all temporarily  taken out of circulation. This welcome side-effect of the pandemic response enabled the Department to thoroughly evaluate which modes of transportation would be allowed back, weeding out the excess and unwanted.  So far, this has given the people an improved, although limited, commuting experience for the time being. 

With the ongoing community quarantine  measures, the DOTr has also been able to implement its transportation reform programs with hardly any affected sector complaining. No Temporary Restraining Orders (TRO), no disruptive transport strikes, and no incessant kvetchers who would stonewall whatever government measure was on the table. 

Three weeks ago, the department presented to the media the tunnel boring machines it intends to use in the construction of the country’s first subway network. Then last week, the MRT-3 set a record  when it started to field 22 trains on a single day on its tracks. 

Unfortunately, with the ongoing changes in the transportation landscape, many traditional workers have also been displaced.  Jeepney and  bus drivers are now struggling to make ends meet and are on the brink of hunger as the regularity of a daily wage continues to elude them. 

Aside from the PUJ sector, one of the hardest hit transport groups during the quarantine has been the bus industry. After lording it over EDSA for more than 30 years, buses are now relegated to the median lane and blocked by concrete barriers from the rest of private vehicle traffic. The loosening of the community quarantine measures last June gave the DOTr the authority, and opportunity, to clean up the bus system’s ranks. It was also allowed to implement  the new EDSA Busway service that aims to cut down travel time from one end of the highway to the other from three hours to one.

The imposition of the program was swift and immediate. Today, it continues to deliver a more convenient bus riding experience than whatever we had over the past three decades. Notwithstanding  the occasional concrete barrier crashes reminding the public of the need for further driver training. 

Aside from the contentious concrete barriers which the DOTr and the MMDA conspired to install, we have also witnessed other seemingly ill-executed directives from the Department during the lockdown. The rushed installation of bicycle lanes; the lessening of physical distancing requirements aboard buses, which the Department backtracked from after much pressure from health experts and the President himself; the ongoing gradual closure of U-turn slots along EDSA; and the lack of a comprehensive plan for displaced PUV drivers who have not been allowed to ply their old routes are just some of the challenges the DOTr has been tackling. 

To add to that, starting today we will see provincial buses from 12 destinations in Regions 3 and 4A start to make trips to and from the NCR. More people from the capital and select locations in the provinces of Pampanga, Batangas, Laguna and Cavite, will now be mobile with this latest directive. This despite the raging pandemic which continues to add hundreds, if not thousands of names, to the daily tally of COVID-19 positive cases in the capital and its surrounding provinces. 

And then there is another seemingly ill-implemented plan that will take effect tomorrow, October 1. While the Department has been adamant on transitioning the various transportation systems toward a cashless payment mechanism since May,  the No Beep Card, No Ride policy is just the latest directive from the DOTr that comes with hardly any official announcement. It was only Monday, September 27th, when the public found out through a deluge of various online infographics, press releases and pronouncements that October 1 will be the day EDSA Busway commuters won’t be able to pay for their rides in cash anymore. 

Only a  few low-viewership vlogs that showed the experience of some commuters unable to ride  buses at the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange (PITX) because they did not possess a Beed Card were broadcast on YouTube a month ago. Hardly fitting any definition of a mass information dissemination campaign. 

Similar to previous experiences with seemingly knee-jerk policies from the Department, the lack of any long lead-in information dissemination campaigns about the Beep Card project’s surprise implementation will most likely catch thousands of bus riders flat-footed. Expect the primetime news to be filled once again with the voices of common commuters who were aggravated by the lack of information and poor communication.

While everyone needs to be abreast of the latest situation with regard to the pandemic, this does not excuse the government or any of its agencies from the slipshod implementation of its new policies. Like any decent marketing campaign that aims to seed a product or elicit an intended behaviour, a consistent, comprehensive and encompassing media plan should always accompany any project. Especially those that will have a direct impact on the behaviour of people. Common sense dictates that this should come weeks before the target date of program implementation if public acceptance and adoption is expected. 

But  because  the economy needs to be restarted with urgency, there seems to be a  consensus in government that people will be more receptive to taking measured risks as they learn to live with the virus. And that everyone should slowly adapt to the new normal if only to get the country back on track economically. 

It would seem that various government agencies, including the DOTr, have found relief in using the COVID-19 pandemic response as a convenient and logical justification for introducing new and progressive programs. But the public has grown weary of the perceived lack of a well-thought out and well-coordinated master plan for the long-term sustainability of the nation’s capital. Granted the pandemic is evolving and affecting our lives in ever-changing ways, having a proper plan to show and explain to the public will allay their fears that all this will be for naught once the threat of the virus has dissipated. Or when a new administration steps in.

The Department of Transportation is caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, it is doing its best to achieve its goals given the pandemic situation we are in. On the other, it needs to try harder to justify its efforts, well-thought out as they may be, to a cynical population that has seen half-heartedly executed plans and programs come and go. 

The Department has committed itself to improving the lives of the people it serves. With 639 days to fulfil the promise of a comfortable life for Filipinos, the nation is holding its collective breath that perhaps there will be a marked improvement in the transportation sector in the last two years of the administration. After all, more than just leaving a legacy, this government should also lay the groundwork to inspire future generations to do things right the first time. 

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