OFFLINE: What do they really want?

As part of my day to day existence as a still-working journalist, I get to meet – and more importantly talk – to a good number of drivers from the public transport sector. Not just drivers, but operators too.

These operators are the men and women who own the jeeps and taxis that drivers drive to earn a living.

And because the transport sector is frequently in the news, what they say becomes newsworthy, especially if it involves what has come to be known as “tigil pasada,” or refusal to ply their routes, in the case of the jeepney drivers.

The old phrase for their action was transport strike, but this has negative connotations of drivers backed by possible communist infiltrators waving black and red banners calling on the people to get rid of the elected leadership.

This was one reason that professional red taggers pointed at leaders of jeepney drivers’ organizations such as PISTON and Manibela as secret communists. Whether this is true or not, I cannot say with absolute certainty.

The two organizations have become frontliners in the sector’s demand for fair treatment. Other organizations which were also ultra-active in the past appear to have mellowed down and are more supportive of the government’s initiatives. The likes of Pasang Masda and the Federation of Jeepney Owners and Drivers Association of the Philippines AKA Fejodap do not, as a rule, join in the mass actions of PISTON and Manibela, although their members are just as frustrated as their peers in the “militant” organizations.

What I do know is that most drivers had been frustrated by such things as high prices of fuel products, alleged corruption in getting or renewing their franchises, and the government’s supposed refusal to acknowledge their plight.

The jeepney drivers and operators, in particular, had been especially peeved at the government’s forcing them to modernize, which meant getting rid of the old-style jeepneys that first appeared at the end of World War ll. Some smart Pinoys had converted the hundreds of military jeeps left behind by US forces and converted them to public transport.

Fare was cheap and affordable to most Filipinos, who no longer had to ride calesas to get from place to place if they did not have their own cars. The tranvias which were common in pre-war Manila had also not resumed operations after the war.

They were, in other words, an idea whose time had come, but only for the short-term. Metro Manila did not have a rail-based mass transit system, which most developed and developing countries either had already, or were in the midst of developing.

What many drivers and operators resent is that the modernization plan was rammed down their throats without bothering to consult with them.

In short, the drivers and operators are being arm-twisted into replacing their old-style jeepneys into modern jeeps, which look more like mini buses. They are electric powered and do not run on gasoline or diesel, which is the case with the jeepneys that most Pinoys have come to know and love-hate.

There may be a good reason to turn to electric vehicles, primarily the issue of the pollution that jeepneys are guilty of day in and day out. Imagine the tens of thousands of jeepneys not only plying the streets of Metro Manila, but nationwide. Most are guilty of polluting the air coupled with the noise pollution that comes with the territory.

They have become the vehicle of choice of the public, along with those infernal tricycles which are not only just as bad, but worse in many ways.

Without the jeepneys, countless consumers would be hard put to get from Point A to Point B, and C and D, etc.

So until Metro Manila is able to have a complete, effective and affordable mass transit system – rail based, to be sure – the Philippines has no choice but to tolerate the existence of jeepneys.

And until the ongoing subway and other mass transit systems are completed in a few years, commuters have no choice but to depend on the ubiquitous  jeepneys.

December 31, 2023 was supposed to be the deadline for all jeepney drivers and operators to either form a corporation or cooperative, which will then transition all jeepneys to go electric. This means having to purchase new units, and this also meant having to buy Made in China “jeeps”.

Remember Sarao and Francisco Motors? The two all Filipino companies are trying to enter the market with cheaper models, but so far few would-be buyers are taking the bait.

The modernization program was a brainchild of the Duterte administration, by the way, and if anyone is to blame for the current mess, it is the former president. Sadly, the drivers and operators are now blaming Bongbong Marcos for “killing” their livelihoods, which is not quite fair.

Marcos only inherited the program, and he had no choice but to make sure it pushes through. In his mind, it is the pollution aspect that needs to be addressed soonest.

That’s all well and good, I suppose, but the president should seriously consider reviewing the nuts and bolts of the modernization program, and tweak it where necessary.

Since there are still so many jeepneys that have not registered to join the mandatory modernization program, as of this week thousands of drivers are in effect breaking the law. But ridding the streets of the unregistered jeepneys will cause a serious transport crisis which has no solution. The Libre Sakay programs that local government units resort to are a mere drop in the bucket, and are not sustainable to boot.

Opposition leader Senator Koko Pimentel suggests a stop gap measure, which is to extend the deadline by six to 12 months.

And since most modern jeepneys cost anywhere from PHP2 million to PHP3 million, the subsidy being offered by the government of a meager PHP200,000 is little help.

He suggests raising the subsidy to more realistic levels. Further, Pimentel says the paying period should also be extended to as long as 10 years. These are sound suggestions which the bright boys of Duterte never bothered to consider when the modernization program was first concocted.

One of the two active drivers’ organizations said last week that based on their pencil pushing, the estimated minimum fare for their members to earn a small daily profit is around PHP25 to PHP30.

The current minimum fare is now PHP13, and already commuters are saying that the burden is too much.

To grant the PHP25 to PHP30 minimum fare will not only punish all commuters, it will also be highly inflationary.

Know that old saying about being stuck between a rock and a hard place? That’s where the government will be at the end of this month, when the extension of the deadline ends.

Marcos must now make a tough decision, one that he inherited from his predecessor, who has already washed his hands of the mess he created.

As for the jeepney drivers and operators, all they’re asking for is a fair deal. And that, folks, is definitely not too much to ask now, is it?