Tolentino and traffic

RAPPLER.COM’S STORY about PNoy’s ordeal of being stuck in a traffic jam is titled “Traffic-stuck PNoy ribs MMDA chief.”

The verb “rib” is synonymous with “tease.” The unmanned Rappler.com journalist writes: “Even President Benigno Aquino III could not bear Metro Manila’s traffic, prompting him to call up and tease Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chairman Francis Tolentino.”

Dictionaries also define “rib” as “ridicule.” I like that — PNoy ridiculing, not simply teasing, his schoolmate.

So let’s take the cue from our President to ridicule, tease or rib Tolentino. By the way, this is the same Tolentino who was provoked by Dan Brown’s description of Manila as the “gates of hell.” Responding to Brown, Tolentino wrote: “While we are aware that yours is a work of fiction, we are greatly disappointed by your inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis.”

Fiction is an invention. Why should Tolentino be overly sensitive to an “inaccurate portrayal” in a fictitious novel?

But Metro Manila traffic is hell. That is not an inaccurate portrayal of Tolentino’s beloved metropolis.

Perhaps jolted by PNoy’s ribbing or ridiculing, Tolentino is proposing the expansion of the number coding scheme to reduce the number of vehicles on Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare.

To illustrate, vehicles with plate numbers whose last digits are 1, 2, 3, and 4 will be banned from using EDSA between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Mondays. Those whose last digits are 5, 6, 7, and 8 are banned on Tuesdays. Those with plates ending in 9, 0, 1, 2 cannot enter EDSA on Wednesdays; license plates ending in 3, 4, 5, 6 are prohibited from EDSA on Thursdays; and license plates ending in 7, 8, 9, and 0 cannot pass through on Fridays.

Ang gulo! Crazy!

The fact is the number coding scheme has failed. Yet, Tolentino’s proposal to alleviate the worsening traffic is to expand it. He is no different from those free-market economists who do not admit the failure of the liberalization reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. The so-called Washington Consensus, the embodiment of the liberalization and deregulation, is now dead. But the argument of the unrepentant few is that liberalization failed because governments did not pursue further liberalization.

Many commentators have already pointed out why the Tolentino proposal is doomed. The number of vehicles on the road will only increase. The rich and the middle class, thanks to rising income and affordability of motor vehicles, will buy new cars with license plates that can dodge the number-coding rules. And even assuming that the scheme can reduce the number of vehicles on EDSA, the vehicles banned on EDSA will clog other roads.

To avoid EDSA, vehicles going to the Makati district, coming from Quezon City or Alabang will traverse C-5 and McKinley Road to get to Ayala Avenue. Especially during the start and end of a working day, the drive from Global City to Ayala Avenue and vice versa — a very short distance — can take at least an hour.

McKinley, by the way, is the road used by big business and the rich and famous. Imagine the loss of precious time for the captains of industry because of the McKinley traffic.

WORSE TRAFFIC SITUATION
All in all, Tolentino’s proposal will worsen the traffic situation. Air quality will further deteriorate. People’s health and productivity will further suffer. And PNoy will again be stuck in traffic when he visits the urban poor in Taguig or the gentrified bourgeoisie in Forbes Park.

But what can be done? Indeed, the Metro Manila traffic situation cannot be addressed overnight. Rehabilitating and expanding roads, modernizing public transportation acquiring new technology and the like take years. Yet, interventions leading to immediate results are available, but they either have been ignored or have not been pursued vigorously.

What, for example, has happened to the measure to abandon the boundary system and supplant it with a wage system for public utility drivers? The boundary system has only reinforced and perpetuated bad driving habits of jeepney and bus drivers. It does not help either that MMDA traffic enforcers continue to allow these drivers to remain king of the road. Buses occupying three lanes or swerving from one lane to another and jeepneys blocking intersections to pick up passengers are common.

The bus owners were able to stall the implementation of the wage system. But government has the greater power to overcome the resistance from the vested interests, considering that it has overwhelming public support for this.

Further, the implementation of a wage system for public utility vehicles has to go hand in hand with rationalizing the number of buses and jeepneys on the road. Again, this is a question of overcoming narrow interests, which government has shown it can do (e.g., the reproductive health and the sin tax reforms).

Last but not least, it is high time we increased the excise taxes on fuel. The specific tax on fuel is very low and has to be adjusted to inflation. Increasing fuel taxes will generate additional revenues, which can be earmarked to build new infrastructure and subsidize the public transportation system. At the same time, the higher taxes will encourage the restrained but efficient use of vehicles.

Beyond literally manning Metro Manila’s traffic as suggested by PNoy, Mr. Tolentino should be at the forefront in pushing for the reforms enumerated above. Otherwise, he should retreat and take his harebrained schemes with him to Tagaytay. Let him experiment in his hometown, which is suffering from traffic congestion during holidays and weekends.

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