Paolo Romero and Delon Porcalla | | November 21, 2016

MANILA, Philippines - Despite its plea for official emergency powers, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) has no concrete plans yet on how to decongest Philippine road traffic, a ranking department official admitted over the weekend.

Senators were apparently upset when Transportation Undersecretary Raoul Creencia told them this during the Senate committee on public services' final hearing last week on proposals to grant President Duterte emergency powers to solve the country's transportation crisis.

Creencia also disclosed no parameters have been laid out yet for the appointment of Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade as the traffic crisis manager.

"Congress is willing to provide those emergency powers because we know that there is a crisis, that there is a problem," Senate Minority Leader Ralph Recto said, pointing out though that there should be a concrete plan and a list of specific focus areas.

"Many of their projects just have titles," Recto lamented. "There are no detailed engineer designs, no feasibility studies, not to mention there is no funding in 2017."

Addressing Creencia, the senator said: "Number one, there should be focus. If the problem is in Metro Manila, particularly EDSA, since traffic there is worst, I don't think it should be nationwide. Let's focus."

Creencia told the senators the DOTr wanted a "holistic approach" to the emergency powers, which means covering the entire country's land, sea and air transportation.

But when Recto pressed Creencia if the DOTr has a decongestion and transportation network reform plan, the official admitted there was none.

When asked what specific areas nationwide will the traffic crisis manager handle, Creencia again admitted the DOTr has not yet made a list.

"We will pinpoint areas, your honor," Creencia said.

"So you have not pinpointed them today," a visibly irked Recto said. "That's what I'm saying – you will lose focus. You want a single authority, in effect, a traffic crisis manager for the entire Philippines. You are asking for vast powers, and it is alarming that you do not have any plan even now.”

"Perhaps, the DOTr should focus on projects that will immediately solve traffic," Sen. Grace Poe, who chairs the public services committee, said. "Perhaps, you want to accomplish a lot of things, but many of the projects you listed might not really be helpful in solving the traffic problem."

Poe said public funds must be spent judiciously even with emergency powers, as she questioned the DOTr's proposed P219-billion subway project that would cover only 14 kilometers.

"When it comes to spending taxpayers' money, the rule is that the bigger the expenditure, the more rigorous the scrutiny must be," she said. "If projects do not go through public bidding, that means it will be more prone to corruption."

The senator raised concerns on the planned Bus Rapid Transport System along EDSA, saying narrow lanes, such as the intersection of Shaw Boulevard, might not be able to handle BRT, as there will only be a single lane left for private vehicles.

Poe also questioned DOTr's plans for new railways, saying these can be achieved through a regular bidding process.

At the House, Iloilo City Rep. Jerry Treñas said the transportation secretary must first prove his department could help ease Metro Manila's worsening traffic congestion before Congress grants the President any emergency powers for that matter.

"I think Secretary Tugade should take the initiative instead of waiting for the approval of the emergency powers for the President," Treñas said, adding there are other ways to address the problem, removing the need for any emergency powers.

While both the House of Representatives and the Senate are receptive to the request for emergency powers, both chambers still need at least three to four months to fine tune the measure, and the President still has to finally approve it.

One traffic measure Treñas proposed is to declare the 27-kilometer EDSA and other major road arteries in Metro Manila as "no driver-only zones" during peak hours, except on weekends.

The Visayas lawmaker noted that the bulk of vehicles plying the EDSA route are private cars with only the driver as passenger.

"We should start the culture of car pooling," Treñas suggested. "If we remove cars with single passengers along EDSA and encourage people to share their cars with neighbors and officemates, we will be removing a huge number of automobiles that congest EDSA during peak hours."

Last year, a proposal to ban vehicles with less than three passengers in EDSA during peak hours was laid down, but was overtaken by the campaign season last May.