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It is an emergency

Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 17, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote of the chaos installing a sewerage system would create. A couple of days later, a lane of South Luzon Expressway was closed down. Just one lane out of four that transports vehicles from the south to Manila, yet chaos ensued. Traffic was stuck for one, two, even three hours just getting past Alabang.

That’s a microcosm of the disaster tearing up numerous roads all at one time to install a sewerage system would bring, if the Supreme Court order to complete the job in five years is not corrected. The high court insists the five-year period to install a sewerage system must be adhered to because it’s in the contract. I read it differently and believe the water firms Maynilad and Manila Water have met the contract. I hope they can convince the court, if not change the contract. The administration can override this impractical decision with a change in the contract that takes into account the practical realities. It must. I see no justification for the penalty and wonder why the Supreme Court imposed it. I hope they rescind it.

The Greater Manila Area is approaching an unlivable state. When you spend half your day just getting somewhere, you know you’re in a country that has lost its ability to compete; a country where the family life Filipinos treasure has been lost because parents don’t see the kids anymore.

At the beginning of his term, President Duterte requested Congress to provide the Department of Transportation (DOTr) with emergency powers to untangle the mess. Three and a half years later, the bill has not been acted on. As Sen. Grace Poe rightly said: “It is not the lack of powers, but the lack of a master plan and more aggressive action from the DOTr that bears emphasizing. We can give all the powers they want but if they have no master plan, they will just end up wasting money or, worse, still not being able to achieve anything.”

It was not an unreasonable request, and should be limited to specific items, like reviving the Metro Manila Council that Imelda Marcos controlled (but please, please, not with Imelda). So that the joke that is called a road, Edsa, can be controlled by a single entity over its whole disastrous 24 kilometers. I’ll never forget an unbelievable (but believe it, it’s true) eight hours from Congress to Alabang one afternoon after some rain. Mind you, I stopped for an hour and a half to eat (and go to the toilet), so I endured six and a half hours in the car for a one-hour trip.

Edsa could move faster if there is discipline. Buses kept to one lane with NO overtaking under any circumstances. Designated bus stops where they wait patiently behind one another. Cars, jeepneys, etc. allowed to drop off in that lane only. Vehicles kept to their lanes, no jockeying for short-term advantage. Traffic aides every 400 meters to enforce discipline. These things don’t need emergency powers. They just need tough, political will. But outside that, emergency powers are needed to speed up the passage of projects.

A subway or a tunnel under Edsa would do much to solve the problem, but that’s long-term. Even with emergency powers to bypass bureaucratic roadblocks, it would still be many years in the making.

But instead of providing the master plan that Poe requested, the government has ditched it. On Sept. 23, the DOTr withdrew from Congress its request for emergency powers to deal with traffic. Capitulation. So we must continue to suffer. This just won’t do.

Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade and Poe should sit down together and work out a deal to save us from this nightmare. As I understand it, Poe believes sufficient improvements could be accomplished within existing laws. All that’s needed is strong political will. I think we’d all like to see, specifically, what those actions could be. If they are sufficient, have Tugade get them done. If not, give Tugade emergency powers.

Let’s at least try to make Manila and Cebu halfway livable. It is an emergency.

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