To say that the Monday morning that welcomed Metro commuters on the first day of the GCQ was a hectic mess is an understatement. The LRT, MRT and PNR trains took on fewer passengers, selected buses along EDSA were only allowed in four designated pick-up/drop off points, while private shuttles carried just half the usual capacity. The healthy and able resorted to biking and walking to get to their destinations but the more unfortunate were helplessly stranded, waiting for the occasional government vehicle or good samaritan for a free ride.
Noticeably absent were the iconic Philippine jeepneys that were the ride of choice for millions of Filipino commuters prior to the pandemic. The ECQ halted all forms of public transportation but even as the Metro eased into GCQ status, the “King of the Road” has yet to be back. The government refused to allow jeeps to go back to their routes because these vehicles only accept cash as mode of payment, there will be difficulty in enforcing social distancing, and properly monitoring passengers would be impossible – factors that can increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
In recent interview, a Department of Transportation (DOTr) official affirmed that phase-out of old jeepneys would push through by the end of the year, saying that jeepney operators have been given enough time since the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP) rolled out in 2017.
“It’s true that there is a plan to phase out traditional jeepneys and they knew it will come because since 2017 we have been talking with the jeepney operators and their leaders,” explains DOTr senior consultant Alberto Suansing during an interview with The Chiefs on One News.
The PUVMP is the flagship program of the government to make the transport system more efficient and environmentally by phasing out PUVs that are over 15 years old and replacing them with modernized vehicles powered by Euro 4-compliant engine or electric engine. The Land Bank of the Philippines estimates each new unit to cost between P1.4 to P1.6 million. Under the PASADA program, jeepney operators can avail of a P80,000 government subsidy for vehicle purchase, while the rest of the amount will be covered by a loan with a six-percent interest rate, payable in seven years.
Some transport groups have criticized the program to be “anti-poor,” pointing out that most jeepney drivers and small-time operators cannot afford the steep price of brand new units.
Almost three years after the initial roll-out of the PUVMP, many older jeepneys are still here and only a small number of operators were able to afford the costs of modernization. During a November 2019 Senate hearing, the DOTr affirmed that older jeepneys will still be allowed to ply the roads even after the transition period, provided that it can pass roadworthiness tests under the motor vehicle inspection system (MVIS).
The suspension of all forms of public transport during pandemic was mandatory, but new rules concerning its revival gave the DOTr an opportunity to restart modernization efforts. Last month, the department revealed a two-phased plan to allow PUVs including jeepneys to operate beginning June 22 – if higher capacity vehicles fail to meet the increased volume of commuters returning to work.
But there is one catch though: In Metro Manila alone, 2,000 modernized jeeps will be prioritized over the traditional ones. And even as older jeepneys outnumber the new ones, the franchise consolidation aspect of the PUVMP modernization remains in force.
“Before the COVID-19 situation, they were given until June to consolidate their franchises and start forming a legal entity like a cooperative. The LTFRB will issue one franchise for them. We told them if they can’t consolidate their franchise, then they lose the chance of being given another franchise to operate in that route,” Suansing clarifies. However, he said that old jeepneys would still have the chance to operate this year because the deadline for consolidation has been extended until December.
Commuting is already hard even before the pandemic. The absence of jeepneys in Metro Manila will further add to the burdens of passengers, drivers, and operators alike that depend on it every day. If this is how the ‘new normal’ of public transport looks like, people will be left with little choice but to fend for themselves until a viable solution arrives.