‘Asking for the moon’
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (Philstar.com) - October 9, 2019 - 12:00am

Commuters hated it; drivers of private cars were glad about the light traffic on a working Monday. Bus operators probably had more passengers and must have appreciated the nationwide strike staged the other week by jeepney operators and drivers.

The strike delivered the message that the participants intended to send particularly to President Duterte: to show what would happen if their jeepneys were completely taken off the streets as part of the mass transport modernization program.

Whether the message would have the desired effect, however, is uncertain.

Transport authorities have already said that the strike would not stop the phase-out of the traditional jeepneys and their replacement with sleeker, eco-friendly but much more expensive versions.

Efren de Luna, president of the Alliance of Concerned Transport Organizations or ACTO, and Mody Floranda, president of PISTON or the Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operators Nationwide, said modernization is fine in principle. But they staged the strike – the first since last year – because they are against being stampeded into a full phase-out, ready or not, by July 1, 2020.

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Under the program, they are being asked to “voluntarily” surrender their franchises. De Luna said there is no guarantee that they would get back the franchises.

In fact, he and Floranda told “The Chiefs” recently on Cignal TV’s One News, franchises are already being given to operators of the modern jeepney models along regular routes.

The protesting groups are pressing for a compromise, which is to allow them to hang on to their traditional jeepneys. With rehabilitation and regular maintenance, they say, the units can meet vehicle emission standards and function in peak form. The jeepney groups have launched the “Tanggal Bulok, Tanggal Usok” to rehabilitate their vehicles.

This will spare them from borrowing money to pay for the new jeepneys. Even at low interest rates, repaying the loans will be a heavy burden, they told The Chiefs.

De Luna pointed out that a new jeepney from Francisco Motors, now the principal maker of the iconic Pinoy vehicle, costs around P800,000. The modern jeepneys, tall and wide enough for passengers to stand along the aisle and with some models air-conditioned, cost from P1.2 million to P2 million each.

Another beef of the protesters: even if they manage to form cooperatives, as envisioned under the modernization program, they say they cannot set up the required depots along or near their routes. Only large-scale operators and big shopping malls can provide such depots, they say.

Elvira Medina, former transport assistant secretary and now chair of the National Center for Consumer Safety and Protection Inc., told The Chiefs that their volunteers have offered to provide financial advice to help jeepney operators repay the loans, estimated at an average of P800 a day, with relative ease based on their regular earnings.

De Luna counters that with an average boundary of P1,000 a day in Metro Manila, their earnings are not enough to cover the repayment.  

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What could ultimately decide the fate of the jeepney is commuter preference. I have written about the growing popularity of the e-jeepneys, which partly use solar power. Because of the energy used, these vehicles are smoke-free, noise-free, and can provide gadget charging ports under the seats, free wi-fi and even TV at low energy cost. Because the vehicles are designed to allow people to stand along the aisles, they have wider headroom and space to move around than the regular jeepney.

It’s definitely cleaner and more comfortable than the classic jeepney. At night the typical e-jeepney also looks like a safer ride, with its brightly lit interior painted white with eco-green accents.

Medina points out that the standing-room capacity means more earnings while the low fuel cost translates into considerable savings that the jeepney operator can set aside for loan repayment over 10 years at 2.5 percent annual interest.

There is no guarantee, however, that the jeepney will always be full.

De Luna says the poor have no use for wi-fi. Floranda points out that the modern jeepney does not accept passengers carrying dirty items such as fish and live chickens, which are still common in the countryside. They stress that the traditional jeepney is the vehicle of the country’s poor, and there are still millions of them out there.

I’m not sure about the prohibition on fish and chickens, but such comments on the advantages of the traditional jeepney remind me of erstwhile leading global cell phone maker Nokia trying to stop the iPhone tsunami. 

These days, even poor farmers and fish vendors have cell phones. They are likely on Facebook, thanks to cellular data, but they could still appreciate wi-fi.

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De Luna and Floranda stress that they are not against jeepney modernization per se, but merely want proper, gradual implementation. By De Luna’s reckoning, only about 10 percent of jeepneys need to be retired. He believes that the rest, with proper maintenance, can pass testing by the Land Transportation Office’s Motor Vehicle Inspection Station. De Luna stresses that the MVIS should do its job properly.

On The Chiefs, De Luna appealed to Duterte to assign a Cabinet undersecretary or assistant secretary to negotiate with the jeepney operators and drivers for a “win-win solution.”

Talk to the drivers and operators, don’t dare them, he said, as he pleaded with policy makers not to take away their hanapbuhay: “Our livelihoods are at stake.”

De Luna believes fully phasing out the jeepney by July 2020 is asking for the moon or suntok sa buwan.

With their nationwide strike, he said, “nais naming iparating na kailangan pa kami ng mamamayan” – they want to send the message that they are still needed by the citizenry.

At this point, De Luna says, there is still no clear replacement for the humble jeepney.

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MORE GENERAL PROBLEMS: In my previous column, I forgot to mention that Alan Purisima is another former Philippine National Police chief with serious legal problems. He was removed from the service by the Office of the Ombudsman over a P100-million deal between the PNP and a private courier service company. And he is facing criminal charges for graft and usurpation of authority over the Mamasapano case.

There’s talk that the ongoing investigation of “ninja cops” and PNP chief Oscar Albayalde is headed Purisima’s way.

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