“The TRB cannot even tell us how the toll rates were computed. What was the basis for the computation of the toll rates? These questions must be answered first before they raise the toll fees,” said Northern Samar governor Paul Daza, co-convenor of the TUTOL-SLEX.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Is the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) a Philippine government body or a tool of foreign contractors for “muscling its way into the pockets of ordinary taxpayers”? The TRB has incurred the wrath of Taxpayers’ Unity vs Toll Hike in SLEX (TUTOL-SLEX), an alliance of commuters, drivers, peoples’ organizations, businessmen, local government officials, neighborhood associations and other taxpayers. The board, they said, “hastily approved” this week the petition of the South Luzon Tollway Corporation (SLTC) for a 300% increase in toll rates.
Describing the said approval as “treachery”, and the TRB as “traitors to the interest of the public”, the group raised questions about the “lies” cited by the TRB as some of its bases for coming out with the approval. One of it was the supposed public hearings it had conducted.
“There was no public hearing,” Sammy Malunes, co-convenor of Tutol-SLEx, told Bulatlat.com during one of their protest actions. “We do not consider as genuine that so-called public hearing they conducted last Dec 10,” Malunes explained.
The TRB called for a public hearing in their head office last week, but, according to Tutol-SLEx, drivers’ and operators’ organization PISTON and other critics of the toll fee hikes, the public was not really invited because the TRB only announced it through a newspaper with minimal circulation.
The TRB published on December 8 in Manila Standard the SLTC’s proposed toll increases. Toll fees for class 1 vehicles will be raised to P77 ($1.74) from P22 ($0.50), Class 2 – P155 ($3.49) from P43 ($0.97) and Class 3 – P232 ($5.23) from P65 ($1.47). TRB spokesman Julius Corpus said in an interview that the published rates are not yet approved by the TRB pending the result of the public consultation.
The new rates are higher than previous proposals of the SLTC, which had resulted in the filing of two separate Supreme Court petitions for a temporary restraining order. These were granted but lifted quite soon after. From 250-percent, the new proposed increases were 307-percent more than the current rates. It was thus only to be expected that opposition would likely be stronger.
But the groups who had previously opposed the planned hikes were hardly properly informed of the supposed public hearing, complained George San Mateo, secretary-general of Piston. “Where did you see a hearing that barely gave a two-day notice?”
And then the supposed public hearing held Dec 10 turned out to be “just for show,” San Mateo said. Both the chair and board of the TRB did not even attend the hearing, he added.
The TRB executive director presided over that Dec 10 meeting and it was he who presented the petition of the SLTC, San Mateo said. He said this smacked of “blatant connivance” between the TRB and the private toll contractor SLTC.
“What happened last week was an announcement of the plans of SLTC with the TRB as their spokesperson. There was no presentation of facts. Neither was the public heard by the TRB or the SLTC. And they agreed to conduct a public hearing at least two weeks after that. But judging from what they suddenly did today (approving the toll fee hike), they lied,” said Malunes.
“We actually asked the TRB why they were justifying the petition of the SLTC for a 300 percent toll hike when they should have acted as representatives of the government. Who will protect the taxpayers’ money from abusive private contractors? The TRB cannot even tell us how the toll rates were computed. What was the basis for the computation of the toll rates? These questions must be answered first before they raise the toll fees,” said Northern Samar governor Paul Daza, co-convenor of the TUTOL-SLEX.
Along with some provincial bus operators, lawyer Ernesto Francisco, Commuters group NCCPI, Samar Gov Paul Daza and Batangas Vice-Gov Mark Leviste, Piston and TUTOL-SLEx had expressed their opposition against the proposed toll fee hikes during the alleged public hearing.
“We who made it to that meeting (only about 10) had reiterated to the TRB that they must conduct a genuine public hearing so that the petition of the SLTC will be challenged in the proper forum. The TRB agreed and committed to provide all stakeholders with the documents presented by the SLTC. But now they announced that they had approved the SLTC petition. The TRB has betrayed the people!” Malunes said.
Glossed Over Questions of Anomalies
Prior to the TRB’s “hasty approval” of the 300-percent toll fee increases, various critics have asked the TRB to carefully weigh in issues such as the foreign toll contractors’ non-compliance with the contract it signed with the government; its seeming inability to implement the entire toll project with due diligence and transparency; and the questions about the legality of authorizing the SLTC to collect tolls. These were contained in the statements of TUTOL-SLEx, lawyer Ernesto Francisco and various provincial governors.
Malunes of TUTOL-SLEx said that while these questions of legitimacy and non-compliance with contracts are not yet fully addressed, “any increase in toll fees is tantamount to betraying the peoples’ welfare and favoring foreign businesses.” He added that the public hearings “should reflect the public sentiment.”
The hasty TRB approval of toll fee hikes has apparently ignored not only the alleged anomalies and violations of the contract in the construction and operation of toll roads by the private contractors. It has also ignored the sentiments of the diverse groups and personalities who have been opposing the “ridiculously high toll rates”.
The South Luzon Expressway is operated by the SLTC which is owned by MTD Capital of Malaysia. The SLTC contract is not yet cleared of accusations of anomalies. It has also not yet fully complied with its contract with the government in implementing the rehabilitation, construction and operations of the SLEx.
“SLTC should have been sanctioned. Why is the TRB all-too-eager to yield to a non-compliant contractor?” asked Gov Daza. He concluded that the TRB “is nothing but a witting accomplice to a large-scale highway robbery.”
Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano filed House Resolution No. 677 directing the House Committee on Transportation to investigate, in aid of legislation, the Toll Regulatory Board’s approved toll rate hike for the SLEx and its effects on the riding public. TUTOL-SLEx, meanwhile, vowed to pursue all possible means to stop the toll fee increase including the mobilization of local government units in the provinces south of Manila.