SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 14, 2019 - 12:00am

Look what the presidential spokesman has started.

After Salvador Panelo left his air-conditioned car at home to become a jeepsetter last Friday morning, there is now a proposal to make top government officials commute every Monday.

There’s some logic in the proposal. But there’s also logic in the response, expressed by Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, that making government officials commute could only compound public woes.

Seeing the media circus that accompanied Panelo’s foray into jeepsetting last Friday, a regular commuter wouldn’t want to be in the same public utility vehicle as any government official accepting the commute challenge.

Also, assuming that all members of Congress plus Cabinet members, justices, judges, mayors and vice mayors plus ranking law enforcement officials would commute every Monday, it could mean up to 10,000 additional commuters competing for acutely limited mass transportation – since most of the government VIPs would likely be traveling (discreetly, of course) with a retinue of security escorts.

So yes, the justice secretary has a point.

*      *      *

The weekly commuting proposal is meant to continue until, I guess, Panelo admits that Metro Manila faces a transport crisis, and not just a transport problem.

I’m not sure if they can make Panelo cry uncle. Panelo, also chief presidential legal counsel, is articulate, has an extensive vocabulary and is well versed in legalese. You will never catch him groping for words.

In the ensuing firestorm over his “no crisis” remark, Panelo accepted a dare to take public transport from home to work.

The man described by President Duterte as a “model of sartorial confusion” commuted in low-key, casual attire. Panelo urged the media to leave him alone. Of course we couldn’t.

After his commute of nearly four hours, he stood firm on his assessment that there is no transport crisis. Panelo first issued this statement in response to Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes’ pronouncement about a mass transport crisis in Metro Manila.

On the eve of Panelo’s commute, Reyes told us on Cignal TV / One News’ “The Chiefs” that by crisis, he meant something that called for an urgent response.

Reyes had offered to accompany Panelo in his commute. There was no response. So Bayan members staked out Panelo and managed to join him in one of the jeepneys he took on his roundabout trip to his office from his son’s home in New Manila, Quezon City, on to his Marikina home and then to Malacañang.

*      *      *

Reyes and our other guest, Samar 1st District Rep. Edgar Sarmiento, are in agreement on several aspects of the problem.

“If you want to bring this country forward, you have to plan 50 years ahead,” Sarmiento, who chairs the House transportation committee, told us.

Instead, he and Reyes pointed out, plans cover mainly the six years of a president’s single term. When there’s a leadership change, the plans are set aside and new ones drawn up; projects are reviewed, amended or canceled and awarded to cronies of the new ruling class.

Reyes noted that each administration typically focuses on one flagship project, as a showcase of accomplishment at the end of the six years.

Problems also arise, he said, from treating mass transportation mainly as a business that must turn a significant profit rather than as a service vested with public interest. 

While the global trend is to create intermodal transport hubs, this is made difficult in Metro Manila because the light railway services are operated by different entities. Merely deciding on locations for common light rail stations can take years. The numerous bus companies have also resisted government supervision for orderly deployment of their units.

To reduce the vulnerability of mass transport projects, including railways and airports, to political whims and leadership changes, Sarmiento is pushing for such projects to be covered by legislation.

“Commonly, (it’s) new president, different direction,” he told us.

Without a reliable mass transport system, people will continue to use private vehicles and traffic gridlocks will persist.

*      *      *

While there is no quick fix to the disastrous mass transport system, there have been some sound actions and suggestions on easing traffic. The Pasig River, for example, is underutilized for mass transport and its ferry service deserves to be revived.

The road clearing operations, inspired by Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and expanded by the Department of the Interior and Local Government, has helped. The DILG has never wielded such power over local executives, especially among the independent republics of Metro Manila. Now people are saying, “puede naman pala.” So it can be done.

Metro mayors used to balk at efforts by non-elected officials, such as the chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), to exercise supervision over certain basic services in their turfs.

But now the DILG is flexing its muscles, by invoking a directive from the country’s highest ranking elected official. The president of the republic isn’t chief executive for nothing. And local executives have seen what has happened to their colleagues in Aklan who incurred the President’s ire for turning Boracay into a “cesspool.”

Seeing what is happening, former MMDA chairman and ex-Marikina mayor Bayani Fernando says the MMDA should be placed under the Office of the President. The chief executive need not be a micro manager, but it helps to have the top elected official fully behind the MMDA. This would be simpler and better than having an elected governor for Metro Manila, Fernando told “The Chiefs” last week.

Fernando, now a Marikina congressman, also started a bus rapid transit system on EDSA, which fizzled out when a new administration came in.

He is now pushing legislation to open all roads in gated subdivisions for public use. This has already been done in his city and, to a limited extent but with positive results, in Las Piñas and Makati. Fernando wonders why the government has to ask private homeowners for permission to let the public use subdivision roads, when private individuals are the ones who must ask government for the privilege of closing off roads for their exclusive use.

With the transport crisis, now aggravated by the LRT 2 breakdown, every road available must be fully utilized. Perhaps the DILG, backed by the Chief Executive, can also step in.

People would leave cars at home if there is an efficient mass transport alternative. But the railway system is in a crisis situation, and we saw what happened when Sal Panelo took the commute challenge.

The measure of a progressive society is when even VIPs take mass transport regularly, and the sight of the presidential spokesman commuting is no big deal.

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