Marichu A. Villanueva | The Philippine Star | January 5, 2015

If there is one Cabinet member of President Aquino whose public approval rating would likely plunge if opinion surveys are done now, it would be Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Joseph Emilio Aguinaldo “Jun” Abaya. This is because two of the department’s attached agencies have green-lighted increases of fares and tolls on key public services.

These are the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) – under which are the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) and the Light Rail Transit (LRT) – and the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB), respectively. The LRTA and the TRB are among the agencies attached to the DOTC for supervision.

Amid indignation and vehement opposition from labor and militant groups, the management of the MRT and the LRT Lines 1 and 2 implemented starting yesterday the fare increase in the three train systems in Metro Manila. Even without benefit of public hearings, the DOTC approved the LRT/MRT fare hikes.

The DOTC merely published the matrices of the increased based fare of P11 plus P1 per kilometer in the three train systems in Metro Manila. Based on the new matrices, end-to-end trips on LRT-1 (Baclaran to Roosevelt) and LRT-2 (Recto to Santolan) will increase from P20 to P30 and P15 to P25, respectively. End-to-end trips on MRT-3 (North Avenue to Taft Avenue), meanwhile, will increase from P15 to P28.

Last December 18, the DOTC issued Department Order No 2014-014 setting the new fares for the country’s three major mass transport systems in the metropolis starting Jan. 4. The DOTC has decided to adopt a uniform distance-based fare scheme for MRT-3 as well as LRT-1 and LRT-2 pursuant, they stated, to the Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan.

In lieu of public hearings, the DOTC merely published two days later its unilateral decision to implement the fare hikes of the MRT and LRT under DOTC Order signed by Abaya. “The Order shall take effect 15 days after its publication in a newspaper of general circulation,” Abaya stated in his order.

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The controversial order was published by the DOTC in a paid advertisement in only one national newspaper.

At least in the case of the TRB, the agency headed by former congressman Edmund Reyes published the toll hike petitions filed before his office for public hearings.

Operators and concessionaires of the NLEX, Cavitex, South Luzon Expressway (SLEX), and the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road (STAR) are seeking toll increases starting January. MNTC sought an average of 15-percent toll increase for NLEX while CIC petitioned for a 25-percent hike for Cavitex. On the other hand, South Luzon Tollway Corp./Manila Toll Expressway Systems Inc. (SLTC-MATES) petitioned a 33 percent hike while STAR Infrastructure Development Corp. (SIDC) sought a 16-percent toll increase.

Amid the hue and cry over the MRT and LRT fare hikes, Abaya, however, assured the public they can expect better MRT and LRT services this year with the approval of additional funds for the rehabilitation of the train system under the 2015 budget that President Aquino signed into law last December 23.

Before the Christmas break of the 16th Congress, they approved into law the 2015 budget that, among other things, allocated P9 billion for the repair and rehabilitation of the MRT coming after a near fatal derailment of MRT coaches earlier last year. Another P1.2 billion is also being made available for the MRT under the 2014 supplemental budget that President Aquino also approved into law

So it behooves the DOTC Secretary to explain to millions of MRT and LRT commuters why do they have to pay for higher fares. Abaya was quoted later in media as saying the revenues from the fare hike would go to an escrow account set aside for the payment of the government’s monthly dues to the MRT Corp. – the private concessionaire that runs the MRT trains.

So Abaya is collecting for and in behalf of the MRTC?

Abaya is reportedly among those being groomed by President Aquino to run for the Senate in the coming May, 2016 elections under the ruling administration Liberal Party (LP). Abaya is currently the acting LP president. He took over the party’s top post in place of LP president-on-leave, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas II who is now LP’s presumptive presidential standard-bearer in the coming May, 2016 elections.

Abaya took over as DOTC Secretary also from Roxas when the latter moved to the DILG post. Then as incumbent Cavite congressman, Abaya was personally recommended to President Aquino by Roxas to succeed him at the DOTC.

Then as secretary-general of the LP, Abaya’s appointment to become the new DOTC chief came at the end of his stint as manager of the House prosecution team that successfully helped impeach former Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona.

Earlier, we were among those willing to give Abaya a fair chance to prove his worth as DOTC Secretary when his appointment came under fire from Aquino critics. With excellent credentials, Abaya was seen then to bring fresh ideas to better run the huge bureaucracy at the DOTC that nearly grinded to halt during Roxas’ watch.

Major and big-ticket projects of the DOTC were all put on hold after Roxas took over from then DOTC Secretary Jose de Jesus. The first DOTC secretary of President Aquino, De Jesus suddenly resigned from the Cabinet after serving little more than a year.

Purportedly he only agreed to serve for one year in the Aquino Cabinet, yet the unexpected resignation of De Jesus as DOTC secretary paved the way for the appointment of Roxas with the lapse of the one-year ban for losing candidates of the May, 2010 elections. As LP running-mate of President Aquino, Roxas ran but lost to Vice President Jejomar Binay.

But Roxas is still contesting before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal his loss to Binay. Even as the next presidential election is just around the corner, the electoral protest of Roxas against Binay has not moved at the PET.

Lest I digress, the point is such unpopular hikes in fare and toll rates would be political suicide for Abaya, and for Roxas as well as his foremost backer. As a fellow Cabinet member going around the provinces, Abaya was even quoted introducing Roxas as the next President of the country in many of their supposedly non-political out-of-town sorties. As it is turning out, they are like two peas in a pod.