By Macon Ramos-Araneta, Joyce P. Pañares and Rey E. Requejo | Manila Standard Today | January 7, 2015

SENATOR Francis Escudero slammed the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Tuesday for misleading the Senate, saying the senators would not have approved its 2015 budget had they known it would raise fares on the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and Metro Rail Transit (MRT).

“They asked for a budget allocation from Congress and said that was what they needed. We gave it to them, but they did not even inform us that there will be an increase [in train fares],” Escudero said.

“Had we known that there will be a fare hike, we could have given them a smaller amount [for their budget],” Escudero said.

Protest. Members of the group Anakbayan storm the main office of the Transport Department in Ortigas to slam the planned increase in train fares at the MRT and LRT. Manny Palmero Escudero, who chairs the Senate committee on finance, said the new rates burden the public while providing them with no improvement in train service.

He added that Congress had already allocated money for the MRT’s rehabilitaion and improvement in 2015.

“We are not in favor of this LRT-MRT fare hike. They never mentioned this, not during the Senate hearings with the department, not even during the budget deliberations,” Escudero said.

Escudero said before a fare hike can be imposed, public hearings must be held. The DOTC, however, said public hearings were held in 2011—after which the rate hikes were shelved.

“If that is their basis for the hike this 2015, I think that is not fair. They will implement the fare hike four years after the public hearing and they will tell us that that is the public hearing as required by law? I certainly disagree with that logic,” said Escudero.

During budget deliberations, the Senate slashed the P54 billion allocated for the government’s equity buyout of the MRT shares owned by a private consortium, and allocated some of the funds to improve the MRT 3 facilities instead.

The Palace used this allocation to assure the public that the train system would be rehabilitated, even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of petitioners who have challenged the legality of the fare increase.

“The funding and resources for these projects have already been allocated. These will not be affected in the event that there is a legal action to stay the implementation or reverse the implementation of the fare adjustments,” said Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma.

“It is important for the public to understand that what is of primary importance for the government is to deliver efficient service,” he said.

Based on the timetable from the DOTC, the following improvements will be implemented starting this year:

  • Capacity expansion of 48 new coaches to be completed by January 2017
  • Rail installation to be completed by July 2015
  • Upgrade of ancillary systems, including power stations, to be completed by November 2015
  • Upgrade of signaling system to be completed by September 2015
  • Overhaul of 25 light rail vehicles to be completed by March 2016
  • Overhaul of traction motors to be completed by June 2015
  • Covered walkway to be completed by April 2015
  • New radio communication systems to be completed by June 2015

The militant group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, Riles Laan sa Sambayanan (Riles) Network and the Train Riders Network (Tren) filed a petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court Monday, seeking a temporary restraining order to stay the fare hike.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said the petitions have been raffled off to a Supreme Court justice.

Two more petitions were filed Tuesday, one by Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares and the other by the United Filipino Consumers and Commuters (UFCC) through its president, Rodolfo B. Javellana.

Both also asked the Court to issue a temporary restraining order against the fare increases, which rane from 50 percent to 87 percent.

MRT-3 fares increased from P15 to P28 for the 17-kilometer stretch from North Avenue Station in Quezon City to Taft Avenue Station in Pasay City.

For LRT-1 from Baclaran Station in Paranaque to Roosevelt Station in Quezon City, the maximum single-journey fare increased to P30 while the fare for LRT-2 from Rizal Avenue Station in Manila to Santolan Station in Pasig rose to P25.

“Malacanang is taking the people for a ride because there is no need to increase fares. Annual MRT and LRT revenues outstrip operation expenses so it is deceptive for government to insist that it is losing,” Colmenares said.

Colmenares said the MRT earned P2.2 billion in ticket sales but only spent P1.8 billion in operational expenses last year, while the LRT earned P2.5 billion, but only spent P1.03 billion for operational expenses.

“Even if it is losing, it is the government’s task to fund mass transport. The fare hike is beyond doubt unjustifiable because up till now the DOTC has yet to account for the more than P120.7 billion it has spent on the MRT for the past 10 years,” he said.

“Worse, with all the funds spent, the MRT service is very dismal and still deteriorating,” he added.

The UFCC said the DOTC acted with grave abuse of discretion amounting to a lack or excess of jurisdiction, when it approved the new fares.

It branded as the fare hires as “arbitrary, unreasonable and unconstitutional” having been issued in excess of DOTC’s authority.

Aside from the DOTC, the petitioners named the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) and Metro Rail Transit Authority (MRTA) as respondents in the case.

“Not a single public hearing or proper discussion was made by herein respondents, that would show the justification, reasoning or proper computation for such an abrupt and huge fare increase,” the UFCC said.

It added that it was irregular for DOTC to grant the private concessionaires a fare hike even without the necessary public hearings and even without the private consortium applying for a fare increase.

A workers group on Tuesday criticized Abaya for saying the administration had the political will to impose the are hikes.

“Political will does not differentiate the past and present regimes over this issue as they all bear the same class bias and more or less, the same failures,” said Wilson Fortaleza, spokesman for the Partido ng Maggagawa.

“If the President and the entire government cannot go after corporations and powerful people behind this railway scam, that political will assumes no effective meaning other than imposing the burden to the poor,” he added.

His and other labor groups joined protest actions Tuesday in several MRT stations and urged the government to go after the private contractors who allowed the train system to deteriorate.

“Everybody knows that this crashing railway system, the MRT3 in particular, was a product of an onerous contract. The test of political will, therefore, is in the cancellation of this contract and the prosecution of people and corporations behind the scam, not penalizing the people who are the rightful beneficiary of this social good,” argued Fortaleza.

Fortaleza said that the Palace is making gross misrepresentation in labeling government appropriations made for the maintenance and operations of the MRT as a subsidy to commuters when in fact it is a guaranteed payment under an onerous take-or-pay contract. – With Vito Barcelo