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Lawmakers hit Palace for prolonging jeepney woes

By: Julie M. Aurelio, Melvin Gascon - Philippine Daily Inquirer | June 26,2020 - 08:36 AM

Only “roadworthy” jeepneys will be allowed back on the road in Metro Manila next week and only if the selected vehicles currently running are not enough to meet the demand for public transportation, Malacañang said on Thursday.

The Palace statement drew fire from lawmakers who accused the government of prolonging the plight of jeepney drivers left jobless due to quarantine restrictions imposed to halt the spread of the new coronavirus in the country.

The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) will allow UV Express vans and jeepneys to resume operations next week, its chief, Martin Delgra, told an online hearing held by the House committee on Metro Manila development on Wednesday.

Delgra said UV Express routes would be opened next Monday but he gave no date for the resumption of jeepney operations.

Speaking at a news briefing on Thursday, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Delgra’s statement did not mean all jeepneys could return to their old routes.

‘Qualifier’

“If public utility vehicles are not enough, we are considering allowing traditional jeepneys as long as these are roadworthy,” Roque said.

“The qualifier is that it (the jeepneys) should be roadworthy,” he added.

Roque did not define “roadworthy” but said the use of the qualifier meant not all jeepneys would be allowed on the road again. The conflicting statements from Delgra and Roque angered Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite, who said the discrepancy exposed a scheme by some groups to use the coronavirus curbs to advance a program to modernize public transport and phase out the jeepneys and rake in profits from it.

Sen. Nancy Binay demanded that the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and the LTFRB state their plan clearly instead of giving the jeepney drivers the runaround.

The DOTr authorized the return of the metro and some buses beginning June 1 to support a phased reopening of businesses to restart the economy, which shrunk in the first quarter for the first time in two decades due to the coronavirus lockdown.

But transport officials minded only the belt highway Edsa and selected routes, leaving inner-city routes along which thousands of businesses are located without public transportation. Those routes are served by jeepneys, which operate round the clock, unlike the buses and the air-conditioned minibuses that the government calls “modern jeepneys.”

Tiered system

The public transport shortage is clear, but transport officials insist on a tiered system of service resumption that puts jeepneys at the bottom-most rung.

On Wednesday, Efren de Luna, president of Alliance of Concerned Transport Organizations, said his group was afraid the government was secretly implementing the modernization program and that the jeepney drivers were waiting for nothing.

De Luna urged transport officials to “come clean” and tell the jeepney drivers if they were still part of the government’s plan so they could make their own plan.

He said the drivers would stage protests against the DOTr and LTFRB’s “incoherent policies” and that they would “do whatever it takes to defend their livelihood.”

“We will burn our jeepneys in the streets as our last card,” De Luna said.

Commenting on De Luna’s statements on Thursday, Roque denied the government was using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to push the modernization program. He said the jeepney drivers were free to express their sentiments but stressed that they should do so without causing public fear.

“The modernization was not timed with the pandemic. No one predicted that we will have this kind of pandemic,” Roque said.

Transition period

He said the guidelines for the modernization program provided for a three-year transition period from the time it was approved in 2016.

“A three-year transition period was even extended up to December of this year. We are thinking of the commuters’ welfare. This is not an issue of prorich or propoor,” he said.

But Gaite, commenting on Roque’s statements, said there were government officials who were taking advantage of the pandemic to pull off the jeepney phaseout and profit from the “multibillion-peso modernization deal.”

Gaite said it was appalling how officials could bear the sight of jeepney drivers begging for alms in the streets to feed their families.

“We condemn this callousness to the plight of our jeepney drivers and operators. Only for the sake of creating profits for the big manufacturers of ‘modern jeepneys,’ the government continues to ignore the public’s clamor for the return of the jeepneys,” he said in a Viber message.

Not only the drivers are suffering, but also the thousands of commuters, he said.

“This is not surprising considering that Secretary Roque and other national officials do not experience the daily struggle of having to wait for hours for a ride going to work,” Gaite said.

‘Inclusive, not exclusive’

“What is the plan of the DOTr and the LTFRB?” Binay asked in a statement. “It seems like they’re prolonging the suffering of the drivers. If they will be allowed to return, there shouldn’t be so many excuses given. They shouldn’t get the operators and drivers’ hopes up and just make it clear what are the plans for 250,000 drivers and operators.”

Binay said it was hard to accept that the government had allowed the jeepney drivers to lose their livelihood. The government’s push for transport modernization, she said, should be “inclusive and not exclusive.”

“It’s not right to deprive our countrymen of a means of living during the pandemic,” she said.

Unfair

Vice President Leni Robredo said it was unfair for the government to push the modernization program at this time.

“I am not against modernization. But to push that at this time and in this manner, I think, is very unfair to the jeepney drivers and operators who cannot yet modernize,” Robredo said in a television interview.

She said she had been talking with jeepney drivers and operators and had learned that they were not completely against the modernization program.

“What they ask is for the terms to be loosened so that they will be able to comply,” she said. —WITH REPORTS FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA AND JHESSET O. ENANO

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