It was a road “experiment” that led to exasperation, if not embarrassment.
What was supposed to be a three-day test run for the Bus Link Project of the Metro Rail Transit (MRT3) on Edsa proved so problematic on the morning it was launched that it was suspended indefinitely later in the afternoon.
The project, which apparently caught many by surprise, was intended to address the lack of MRT trains and reduce overcrowding at the terminals especially during rush hours, by offering buses to MRT passengers who wish to avoid the long lines.
Under the project, MRT riders who bought single-journey tickets for P15 each can board the specially marked buses at the station of origin, surrender the ticket to the bus conductor upon entry and alight at the destination station. From 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., the buses would pick up southbound passengers at North Avenue station and make stops at Ayala, Magallanes and Taft stations.
But lack of coordination among concerned agencies, as well as a poor information drive, got the project on a rough start on Wednesday.
It showed most glaringly when three of the five Genesis buses chartered by the MRT were flagged down by traffic constables of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) for illegally using underpasses on Edsa.
The drivers were issued violation tickets despite the tarpaulin signs on the buses stating they were part of the project, complete with the warning: “Do not delay.”
With the buses forced to use the lanes for regular buses, some of the passengers decided to get off at MRT stations to again try their luck getting into a train.
The MMDA said it did not issue permits exempting MRT buses from lane restrictions on Edsa.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, MMDA Chair Francis Tolentino said there was no coordination made with his office regarding the project.
He said he was abroad when discussions on the project began March 1 and that he was personally told of the project’s launch only on Tuesday.
“This happened quite abruptly,” he said. “We support the MRT in finding ways to alleviate the plight of the passengers, but buses are not part of the MRT’s mandate. If they deploy buses, they have to comply with the rules.”
“(MRT3 management) should properly coordinate and conduct more studies. The city bus operators might complain about the exemption and might decide to follow suit,” he said, noting that current MMDA bus schemes required months of consultations before they were launched.
In an early-morning interview on Radyo Inquirer , MRT General Manager Al Vitangcol clarified that “this not a program. This is just an experiment good for three days, at a very limited time.”
Vitangcol admitted that “only a few people took the buses, 30 at the most on one bus. The first bus to go only had 10.”
“It was not that successful since most of the passengers still preferred the MRT even with the long lines,” said an MRT employee assigned at North Avenue station, who declined to be identified for lack of authority to speak to the media.
The employee said only around 100 passengers took the buses offered by the train company.
“Why would I choose the bus when it would take me longer to get to my destination? It defeats the purpose, right?” said Ian Dizon, an office worker.
Later in the afternoon, Tolentino, Vitangcol and some bus operators agreed in a meeting to suspend the MRT bus project indefinitely.
Vitangcol said there were still “a lot of issues that need to be fixed.” Again he stressed that the project was only an experiment to gauge the public’s “riding preference” or what time train riders would be amenable to taking buses.
He said such data could not be obtained and validated through mere surveys.
Also on Wednesday, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) said the MRT had yet to file an application for the buses tapped for the project.
“They can file an application for a special permit for experimental operations,” LTFRB Chair James Jacob said, though noting the MRT’s bus project was an unusual case.
He said past special permits issued by the LTFRB were usually for bus companies exploring the use of alternative fuels.
“But the MRT’s case is different. These are regular buses and they want to run on Edsa,” Jacob said, adding that the government’s standing policy is for the reduction of the number of buses on Metro Manila roads.
Jacob said it would make more sense for the MRT to just add more trains.
The Inquirer obtained a copy of a March 5 letter from the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) to MRT saying it was not fully endorsing the latter’s partnership with Genesis.
“The DOTC is not in a position to endorse a specific entity [Genesis] for the issuance of a special permit,” read the letter sent by DOTC assistant secretary Jaime Raphael Feliciano to Vitangcol.
It also stressed that “currently there is a directive from the Office of the President to reduce the number of buses plying Edsa, not add to the existing number.” With a report from Paolo G. Montecillo