WHAT would P3.5 billion a day gain us? It would be enough to pay 6.8 million individuals earning Metro Manila’s minimum wage.
Enough to cover Cebu Province’s budget for 2018 in less than two days. And enough amounts raised, in less than a month, to pay for all 114,000 classrooms our public schools lack.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has said that the social and economic losses caused by traffic congestion in Metro Manila have reached P3.5 billion a day. It repeated that figure last Friday, on the same day JICA signed an agreement with the Philippine Government for an official development assistance loan of up to 104.5 billion yen, or about P51 billion, for the first phase of a subway project in Metro Manila.
Other, more intimate losses are harder to gauge. How many shared meals and family conversations are missed by those who have to spend three to four hours each day on the road, just to get to work and back? “This is no way to live,” a Canadian teacher told me a decade ago, while she and I waited for our cab to crawl forward during a Manila to Quezon City trip that spanned less than 14 kilometers, but took us more than two hours. I said that one of the many things I loved about Cebu was that its road traffic wasn’t so dire. Then.
These days, I need an hour to 90 minutes to drive across a comparable distance, although the ride late at night, when the streets are clearer, takes less than 20 minutes. I try not to grouse, knowing that others endure much worse. I find it helps to sing along to Adele or some beloved pop songs from the Eighties. One of these days, I’ll listen to an audio book or a podcast—anything to avoid a long wallow in the poisonous helplessness that a traffic jam can trigger. Nearly two months ago, some colleagues and I went to Carcar City for a friend’s funeral, and on the way back, the thought of her enduring such a long commute for so many years, with only the occasional complaint, moved me.
Traffic congestion frustrates us because there doesn’t seem to be a coordinated, focused and sustained effort to fix it. If there is, it isn’t being communicated well. We have to weave different strands together to get a sense that there’s a coherent plan being pursued. Without that big picture, the solutions appear piecemeal: a week-long experiment to reward carpooling on EDSA last December; the effort to modernize buses and jeepneys so these can meet international standards on emissions, noise, and safety; and the urgent search for alternative roads while the public works agency builds infrastructure projects like that underpass in Mambaling, Cebu City that now torments commuters in the south.
When stuck in traffic, I remember how one of Cebu’s legislators once pointed out that a Light Rail Transit was proposed for Cebu as far back as 1992. Imagine where we’d be if that had come to pass. It’s one of several grand plans hatched but derailed, for various reasons, like the proposal in 2012 to widen the Cebu North Road from Cebu City to San Remigio, or the proposed public-private partnership in 2013 to build a four-lane coastal toll road from Cansaga in Consolacion to Poblacion in Liloan.
More recently, Congress explored the idea of giving the President or his designated officer, a Cabinet-level traffic crisis manager, emergency powers for a few years to solve the gridlocks in Greater Metro Manila and Metro Cebu, defined as Carcar to Danao City. Senate Bill 1284 or the draft Traffic and Congestion Crisis Act, sponsored by Sen. Grace Poe, outlines a grand plan. So does its counterpart bill in the House, sponsored by House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. These bills push for harmonizing the rules for traffic across cities and towns; properly planning for “an integrated, environmentally sustainable, people-oriented” transportation system; and promoting telecommuting as one way to make fewer car trips.
Whatever happened to all that? That’s a P3.5-billion question.