No budget next year for ‘Libreng Sakay’

Edu Punay - The Philippine Star
No budget next year for âLibreng Sakayâ
Commuters queue for free bus rides from Philcoa to Cubao in Quezon City on March 30, 2021 due to limited public transportation amid the enhanced community quarantine.
The STAR / Miguel de Guzman, file

MANILA, Philippines — The government’s “Libreng Sakay” and service contracting program for public utility vehicles (PUVs) that benefited over three million passengers during the pandemic may be discontinued next year.

In a briefing Wednesday, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) said its proposed P150.76-billion budget for 2022 does not include any funding for this program, which benefits commuters and PUV drivers affected by the pandemic.

DOTr Undersecretary for finance Giovanni Lopez revealed that the agency requested a P10-billion fund for its continuation next year, but this was rejected by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

“Unfortunately, this was not included in the NEP (National Expenditure Program),” he told members of the House appropriations committee chaired by ACT-CIS party-list and Benguet caretaker Rep. Eric Yap.

With this, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade asked lawmakers to restore the budget cut for the benefit of commuters as well as PUV drivers and operators who will still be affected by the pandemic seen to extend until next year.

“Now, we are asking for your help. Help us restore the budget for the free rides and service contracting programs,” Tugade appealed in Filipino.

“This will not only benefit passengers, drivers and conductors, but the entire economy.”

Under the service contracting program being implemented by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB), PUV operators and drivers who participated in the government’s free rides program will receive a one-time payout of P4,000 and weekly payments based on the number of kilometer traveled per week, whether they have passengers or not.

This program was given P5.5 billion under the Bayanihan 2 law and was implemented until June 30, 2021. It was temporarily suspended on July 1, upon the expiration of the law’s appropriations provisions, and relaunched last Sept. 10 after it received a budget of P3 billion under the 2021 General Appropriations Act.

Lawmakers supported the DOTr’s plea and vowed to raise the matter during budget deliberations in the plenary.

House transportation committee chair Edgar Mary Sarmiento agreed with Tugade on the need to fund the program in the coming years, saying “this pandemic, based on study, will be another flu in the making and will last for five years.”

“I would strongly manifest that we again assess the budget and provide a service contracting amount of no less than P3 billion for the 2022 budget,” the Samar congressman suggested.

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Ferdie Gaite also highlighted the zero-budget allocation for PUV modernization in the proposed 2022 budget as he lamented that several displaced PUV drivers still need government support due to COVID-19 transport restrictions.

Under the proposed DOTr budget, 98 percent or P103.08 billion will be allocated for infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is seeking a P25.29-billion budget for 2022 to be able to launch programs that will continuously promote environment conservation and protection.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said the agency’s 2022 budget proposal is seven percent higher than its approved budget this year of P23.59 billion.

He told the House committee on appropriations in Monday’s hearing that this will help the department fulfill its water resilience and water security programs to adapt to climate change and recover from the setback caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We shall be focusing on the strategic thrust of water resilience and water security to heighten integrated watershed management, promote sustainable livelihood for upland communities, address pollution, and protect wildlife and biodiversity,” Cimatu said.

He underscored the need for the government to pursue transformative actions by embracing green growth in addressing the unprecedented tasks toward recovery.

“The DENR’s thrust in 2022 will strengthen the foundation for strategic investments in nature that is seen to promote not just economic growth, but green growth for a more equitable and sustainable future for the country,” he added. – Rhodina Villanueva

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