MANILA, Philippines – Saying officials should have both "political will" and "political compassion," Senator Grace Poe on Monday, February 2, grilled transport authorities on the timing of their decision to raise fares of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and Metro Rail Transit (MRT).
During the hearing of the Senate public services sub-committee on transport, Poe said the announcement of the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) in December last year did not give commuters enough time to prepare for the increased rates, which came into effect January 2015.
Under the new scheme, maximum rides on the train lines will cost between P28-30 ($0.63-0.67), from the current P15-20 ($0.34-0.45).
Poe asked DOTC Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya why his agency failed to mention the fare increase plan either during the Senate's public hearings on the MRT or during the budget hearing last December 10.
She said the DOTC knew it needed more money to fund its rehabilitation plans, but did not raise the issue before the Senate.
Based on figures from the agency, the MRT3 has been allocated a total of P3.776 billion – P2.569 billion from the General Appropriations Act (GAA) 2015 and a supplemental budget amounting to P1.207 billion.
Transportation undersecretary Rene Limcaoco said the DOTC is anticipating additional revenue of P2 billion from the rate hike, most of which will be allocated to the rehabilitation and repair of the train's systems.
"You increased fares because you still have other items to fund to rehabilitate the train system. But at the same time you still needed the subsidies given to you by the government. Therefore what you asked us in the budget hearing was not enough to complete your wish list," Poe said.
But Abaya said his agency did not want to ask too much from the Senate, adding that they were aware of the significant amount needed to rehabilitate the MRT.
"We don't come to the Senate asking for the moon. We never went beyond our ceiling because I knew it would be difficult to eat into others' budgets. We were realistic enough to plan for something to keep to the ceiling," he said.
Poe, however, disagreed.
"I feel that if it's a necessity: you ask for the ceiling that you need and let Congress grapple with it and then decide what they're going to give," she said.
"At that time, you were very relevant in the news... top of mind was the safety of passengers. I think you could've gotten away with it," Poe added.
The MRT3, which traverses through EDSA, is one of the main public transportation lines in Metro Manila, with several stations located in key business hubs.
The Senate has been conducting hearings to probe the safety of the train line and issues regarding its maintenance and ownership after several mishaps – including an incident in August last year when an MRT3 train went past its barrier at the Taft Avenue station, injuring several passengers.
Defending the rate hike, Abaya said the announcement should not have come as a surprise because it has been a persistent question posed to him by media.
He said that the discussion on the proposed rate hike has been raised since 2011.
The DOTC said it held public consultations in November 2011 and again on November 12, 2013. The fare adjustment was approved by the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) board on December 17, 2013.
"From the time I assumed my position, it was a constant question to me. I've been answering that question by saying, basta nagawa namin ang (as long as we fulfilled) requirements, public consultations. We've complied with everything but I've always said that the government is sensitive to the plight of the people," Abaya said.
Although the agency saw the need to raise fares to maintain the upkeep of the train lines, Abaya said the DOTC decided to hold off on the fare hike due to the price increase of other basic commodities.
But he added that they pushed through with the fare hike after the economic cluster reached a consensus to go ahead with the proposal.
The transportation secretary also said that two other agencies – the finance department and the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) – knew about the proposal to raise the fares a few days before the December 18 announcement.
At this, Poe said Abaya should have informed the Senate as well.
"You could've mentioned to us the other items [you] needed…This is an issue that will affect many of our countrymen. You say it's political will on your part. I respect that. We need political will but we also need political compassion," she said.
The senator added that because the announcement was made during the holidays, affected commuters could not question the decision before the courts.
"You cannot blame them for having doubts that people were trying to trick them into compliance," Poe said.
Although Abaya said the timing of the announcement was not intentional, Poe insisted that commuters should have been given enough lead time to adjust to the fare hike.
“We maintain that the fare hike is ill-timed. While it was implemented under the aegis of political will, it is not in accordance with political compassion. Social justice is always the domain of government. Mahalaga ang pagmamalasakit sa kapwa, (compassion is important)” Poe added.
In their presentation before the Senate, transport officials pointed out that fares have remained the same for over 10 years, without adjusting to meet the increase in operating costs.
Responding to complaints that the fare hike was ill-timed given the dismal state of services provided by the mass transport lines, Abaya presented the following rehabilitation projects for the MRT3 and their target completion dates: