“For many families, every peso added to daily transport expenses is a peso less for food.” Kabataan Partylist Rep. Terri Ridon
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Against the presidential spokesman’s remark that only a few people are protesting the fare hike in MRT and LRT, various groups launched protest actions since yesterday in different MRT and LRT stations.
This morning, a “Clap to Stop” fare hikes in MRT and LRT were held in at least three stations of LRT and MRT, led by the Kilusang Mayo Uno and Riles Network. The day before, the group #StrikeTheHike relaunched its Selfie vs MRT-LRT fare hikes by conducting a group selfie protest at the LRT2 train station in Pureza. Near lunchtime also this Monday, as government offices reopened after Christmas holidays, various groups converged at the Supreme Court to file a petition for TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) on the said train fare hike.
Human rights lawyers from National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) assisted the multisectoral groups allied with Bagong Alyansang Makabayan in filing a petition for certiorari and prohibition with the Supreme Court. The petition challenges the LRT and MRT fare hikes on both procedural and substantive grounds. It named as respondents Transportation Secretary Jose Abaya and top officials of the rail transit companies and consortium.
Lawyer Ephraim Cortez said the increase in train fares was “treacherously imposed,” and that it did not satisfy the fundamental requirements of due process, publication and hearing.
Echoing the complaints of student and workers groups, the NUPL team also said the 50 percent to 87 percent increase in LRT and MRT fares “are also excessive, unjustified and baseless.” They described the increases as something the government rammed through an irregular and invalid process amounting to grave abuse of discretion. They said it has no basis “other than the false claim that the government has been suffering from losses in the operation and maintenance of the LRT and the MRT, and combined with a warped logic of tele-transporting supposed subsidies outside Metro Manila.”
Aquino administration ‘out of touch’
The Malacañang spokesperson’s remark that only a few are protesting the fare hike is just one of the many signs that this administration is ‘out of touch’ and ‘insensitive,’ according to statements of organizations of students, workers, urban poor, BPO workers, and progressive party list groups.
“Secretary Coloma and his boss President Aquino are clearly out of touch with reality,” said Vencer Crisostomo, national president of Anakbayan. The youth leader challenged the president to see for himself just how wrong he is by asking any minimum wage earner who depends on the LRT and MRT to get to work every day and the striving student who braves the long lines of the dilapidated train systems each morning just to make ends meet.
“The 50-87 percent increase in train fares is a big blow on majority of workers and students who ride the MRT and LRT, and we’re talking about commuters in the millions,” Crisostomo said.
As groups protested the train fare hike on the first working day of the year, some of the mainstream media noted that despite the hike, people are still queuing up to the LRT and MRT.
But the commuters have also been queueing up to MRT and LRT even despite the frequent news that the ride could get derailed any time and the passengers might get injured. As Sammy Malunes, spokesman of RILES Network said, there is only one LRT and one MRT plying its route. It is not as if the public has a choice. They can only oppose fare hike especially since this one is “unconscionable,” as Kabataan Partylist Representative Terry Ridon said in another statement.
Stopping a railway ‘robbery’
Petitioners for TRO on the train fare hike expressed hopes the remedy they are seeking from the High Court complementing the public’s collective protest will stop the fare hike ‘dead on its tracks.’
“Mr. Aquino and his Cabinet is seemingly taunting the student movement by saying that only a few oppose the fare hikes, when in fact, majority of Metro Manila students will suffer greatly because of the new rates. In the coming weeks, the NUSP (National Union of Students of the Philippines) will be launching a signature campaign in schools to show our students’ rage against the fare hikes,” NUSP National President Sarah Elago said.
After the frequent breakdowns of MRT trains in the past year, and amid the daily congestion of passengers in train stations especially during rush hours, the Aquino administration’s transport officials have suggested in various statements that the train fare hikes would help. But as pointed by critics, the hike is not really needed. If the aim is to rehabilitate and improve the train system, these could be done even without fare hike, and in fact this year’s budget allotted billions precisely for the improvement and running of MRT and LRT.
“The argument that the fare hikes for LRT 1 and 2 and MRT 3 are justified because it will go to the much-needed improvements for the train system is erroneous,” according to research group IBON. In a statement, it dismissed this government claim as just meant “to appease growing opposition over the unreasonable and unjust fare hikes.” Ibon cited the admission of the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) itself that the MRT fare hike would go not to the much-needed improvements of the infrastructure, amid glitches and breakdowns, but to serve government’s questionable financial obligations to the MRT Corporation (MRTC).
Fare hike mostly for profit hike
Against the government justifications for the train fare hike, Ibon explained that the low fares are not the reason behind the bloated government expenses for the LRT/MRT. In the case of MRT, it said the costs have increased because of the onerous financial obligations of government arising from its build-lease-transfer (BLT) contract with the privately owned MRTC.
Under the BLT, the government agreed to pay for the guaranteed annual 15 percent return on investment (ROI) of the MRTC in the form of equity rental payments (ERP), as well as the settlement of MRTC’s tax liabilities.
Citing the latest available data, Ibon said these financial obligations under the BLT comprise about 81 percent of total MRT 3 expenses, while only 19 percent go to O&M (operation & maintenance).
Half of the projected Php2-billion ‘savings’ that government expects to generate from the fare hikes is expected to come from the MRT.
For LRT 1 and 2, Ibon said the bulk (over 47 percent) of its expenses go to debt servicing, based on latest available data. Through the taxpayers’ money, the government shoulders these expenses as the LRT system is a public investment.
Unfortunately, the LRT has been privatized. Ibon warned that because of that, the people will now bear an increasing share of the debt-servicing burden even as the system generates private profits for the consortium of the MVP-Ayala group and their foreign partners. The consortium won the LRT 1 public-private partnership or PPP project last year.
There is no need for a fare hike if government will fulfill its mandate of providing a reliable and affordable mass transportation system, Ibon said.
Public urged to speak out
The KMU, one of the groups who joined the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan in petitioning the Supreme Court to issue a Temporary Restraining Order against the fare hikes, urged the riding public to also speak out.
The labor group said the highest P10.00 increase in LRT fares (Monumento to Baclaran, Recto to Santolan) and the highest P13.00 increase in MRT fares (North Avenue to Taft Avenue) would be a heavy burden indeed for minimum-wage earners.
It said the fare hikes, which amount to a P520 reduction in the monthly incomes of regular LRT passengers and a P676 reduction in the monthly incomes of regular MRT passengers, is a heavy burden for minimum wage earners and contractuals comprising the majority of the train systems’ passengers.
“Privatization would definitely mean higher fares and heavier burden for the riding public, many of whom are workers,” said Elmer “Bong” Labog, KMU chairperson.
The nearly doubled fares also spell greater hardship to students. According to League of Filipino Students (LFS) Spokeswoman Charlotte Velasco, it means students would be forced to cut corners again, to make ends meet.
Higher train fares mean less food on the table for millions of households, Kabataan Partylist Rep. Terry Ridon said Monday in another statement.
“For many families, every peso added to daily transport expenses is a peso less for food,” Ridon said. He warned that considering the low minimum wages in the Philippines, “a great leap in the transport costs affects the food on the table for many families.”
A member of the House Committee on Transportation, Ridon estimated that for the minimum wage earners to cope with the fare increase, they will have to work at least one hour more each day. The increase in train’s roundtrip ticket is roughly equivalent to an hour’s wage. The picture, said Ridon, gets bleaker if you consider the fact that in the minimum wage earner’s family are students who will also have to commute by train and pay the higher fare.