TRANSPORT groups, not for the first time since the introduction of the jeepney modernization program by the Duterte administration nearly six years ago, have caused alarm by threatening to stage a weeklong transport strike beginning March 6 if the program is not effectively canceled.
While the government should not dismiss these activists' concerns outright, neither should it simply submit to their threats. Some adjustments to the program may indeed be required, but the end result should still be the same as what was originally intended: replacement of the country's vast fleet of inefficient, unsafe and environmentally unsound jeepneys with cleaner and more modern vehicles.
The program, officially called the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP), was a priority initiative of the Duterte administration, and was rolled out in 2017 with the goal of replacing 85,000 old jeepneys with more efficient, higher-capacity versions by 2020. To offset the cost of the new jeepneys, low-interest loans are being offered by the Land Bank of the Philippines, along with a subsidy of up to P168,000 per vehicle by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB).
Jeepney owners and operators immediately balked at the program, citing the high cost of the proposed replacement vehicles and the potential harm to livelihoods, and have on a number of occasions managed to stall progress through protest action. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic likewise caused considerable delays, and in its aftermath, resistance to the program has become even more stubborn, as changes in commuting habits have left some operators with permanently reduced passenger loads.
The trigger for the latest threat of a transport strike was an announcement by the LTFRB last week that the franchises for non-upgraded jeepneys would be revoked at the end of March, although this was adjusted to the end of April for Metro Manila. The LTFRB estimated that only about 60 percent of the target number of vehicles have been replaced, which still leaves more than 25,000 that are at risk of losing their authorization to operate.
For its part, the LTFRB is firm about implementing the deadline on schedule, and in this it has remained consistent in its position from the Duterte to Marcos administrations that ample time and as much financial assistance that can be mustered has been made available to jeepney owners, and that improving services for the commuting public must take precedence. Nevertheless, in the wake of the strike threat several lawmakers from both the House and the Senate have called for hearings about the modernization program, and even President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has weighed in on the controversy. In comments on Wednesday, the President suggested that a “different way to implement the program” may have to be found.
We believe the LTFRB's point of view is correct, but that it should not necessarily be considered the final word. The modernization program will result in a more efficient, cost-effective and safer transportation system, benefits that will over the long term outweigh its short-term costs many times over. However, it is also undeniable that for many of the jeepney owners and operators, the program represents a major adjustment to their accustomed work, and a burdensome upfront cost that they may feel is not definitely recoverable.
Any program that has the potential to cause significant disruption to livelihoods, no matter what the ultimate greater benefits may be, should be treated with utmost care and be subject to continuous reevaluation. It may be that the program's parameters as they are now are indeed the best package available, but there is no harm in reviewing it, as the only possible outcomes of that reassessment will either be some improvements, or a further confirmation that the program is appropriate as is.
As for the activist jeepney operators, they should reflect on whether the threat of a strike is actually the most effective and responsible way to make their concerns heard. Other transport strikes in the past have been comprehensive failures, and have only hardened public opinion against operators, as well as subjecting participants to valid penalties for violating their franchise conditions. There is little to suggest that this latest planned action will have significantly different outcomes.
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