Wednesday July 18, 2018

Editorial: Judgment Day for BRT

Editorial Cartoon by Josua Cabrera

IT’S a big day for both proponents and critics of the Cebu Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. Today, the Investment Coordination Committee of the National Economic and Development Authority Board will take up the transportation secretary’s proposal to cancel the Cebu BRT.

As recently as last Thursday, the finance department said it would “push for new roads and a rapid bus transit system to dramatically reduce congestion in this city.” That formed part of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III’s remarks to the Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which Undersecretary Bayani Agabin delivered.

But it turns out that a week before those remarks, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade and Presidential Adviser for the Visayas Michael Dino had written the finance department and recommended cancelling the Cebu BRT. They cited several reasons, including the lack of adequate roads to make a BRT work efficiently and the surge in new vehicle ownership in the four years since the Cebu BRT feasibility plan concluded.

What also changed in the less than four years since the World Bank committed $116 million for the project? The national administration changed and, with it, political winds and priorities shifted.

One can’t help but sense there’s more than hard data and transportation engineering at work here; that both camps either push for or oppose the BRT for reasons that aren’t always transparent. This problem haunts some aspects of public service in our country, but is particularly troublesome in big-ticket infrastructure development.

In the case of Cebu’s current debate, it doesn’t help that the BRT has traditionally been pitched as a cheaper and more flexible alternative to the light rail transit (LRT). Wouldn’t it be feasible to pursue both, if the public and private sector resources can be marshalled? Do our leaders in government always have to play a zero-sum game?

One of the ways this debate in Cebu is being framed is that of relying on private sector experts to make better decisions than politicians. But while the private sector enjoys a less corruption-tainted image than the government does, it’s too easy to assume that its choices would be superior; easy to forget that some of them can be as vulnerable to vested interests as government’s decision-makers are.

How then do we decide? Where can the community find transportation and infrastructure development experts who aren’t aligned with either camp and, as such, can be expected to help the public make more informed choices? As the NEDA-ICC grapples with this today, all we can hope for is that they have Cebu’s best interests at heart.