Friendly face pushes MMDA’s radical traffic solutions
All primped up with lacquered nails and a stream of jet-black hair, Pircelyn “Celine” Pialago stepped out of the patrol car and strode into the small, glass front office that is the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) headquarters on Timog Avenue, Quezon City.
The office might well be MMDA’s battle station, with its wall-to-wall TV monitors manned by uniformed enforcers, the din of the Kamuning flyover and MRT tracks overhead, and its boxed location smack at the center of a busy intersection: Makati to the south, Caloocan to the north, and Quezon City’s inner districts on its southwest and northeast corners.
Blanketed by dust and smoke and hemmed in by honking buses and cars weaving in and out of lanes, the MMDA office reflects the chaos that has characterized Metro Manila traffic in years.
“That’s basically everything we are up against,” said the 27-year-old Pialago, who was appointed MMDA spokesperson two years ago.
Calming things down
With the Metro traffic taking on monstrous proportions, people needed a friendly face, a reassuring voice, from the male-dominated agency.
Which was why Pialago — former beauty queen, reporter, actress, and Liberal Party campaign sortie volunteer — was chosen from a short list of engineers and urban planners.
“When you are in government, it’s normal to have smart people,” said Pialago, who holds the rank of assistant secretary. “The MMDA was mired in so many issues they needed someone who can calm things down.”
The often stilettoed messenger soon became a regular presence in MMDA road-clearing operations covered by the media.
News cameras would focus on the Dumaguete-born beauty, who in 2014 made a grammatical gaffe on live TV as a Miss Philippines Earth candidate.
“She had passed away,” Pialago said of another contestant. She actually meant “passed out.”
But this communications graduate from Miriam College, who also has a master’s degree in journalism from Ateneo de Manila, hardly makes that mistake anymore. After all, as MMDA spokesperson, her job is to communicate the agency’s plans clearly, no matter how unorthodox they are.
Pialago sticks to her talking points and peppers it with tough talk.
“The government can’t just look on while pedestrians and motorists endanger themselves on city streets,” she said.
“We are only looking out for the safety and welfare of the public,” she added, echoing the MMDA’s mantra to justify some of its recent suggestions, like the proposal to close down several bridges for repairs all at once at the height of the monsoon season.
Should we wait till one of the bridges collapse? the agency asked.
‘Stairway to heaven’
As for that vertiginous “stairway to heaven,” as the five-story-tall footbridge in Kamuning has been called, the MMDA spokesperson countered: We can’t just watch as pedestrians play tag with speeding buses when they try to cross the busy highway.
But Pialago would be among the first to acknowledge the MMDA’s biggest roadblock: “(It) has very little wriggle room. It can only enforce rules; it cannot legislate or regulate. It only has 2,000 men when it needs 7,000. It doesn’t have enough funds for more security cameras, breathalyzers, or speed guns to check traffic violators.”
Essentially pared down, she said, the agency is often overwhelmed by its responsibilities and forced to try radical solutions. “It often (feels) like we’re being forced into a corner. We really cannot do anything but compromise or try something new.”
‘Crazy, drunken ideas’
One such measure was the proposed ban on “drivers only” vehicles on Edsa during rush hour.
When it was floated, Pialago and MMDA general manager Jojo Garcia went on endless press briefings to explain the benefits of carpooling and limiting the number of vehicles on the road.
But public objection was so stark that the Senate unanimously passed a resolution rejecting the ban.
The latest MMDA proposal is the “road diet,” which involves reducing the width of Edsa lanes from 3.4 meters to 2.8 meters.
The idea is to fit more vehicles in Edsa without actually expanding the thoroughfare, by making the existing lanes “slimmer” and making room for a new lane.
“People always say: Oh, there goes the MMDA again with its crazy, drunken ideas,” Pialago said. “The challenge is to make people understand na hindi namin sila pinagti-trip-an (that we’re not toying with them), that our ideas are deliberated upon and backed by evidence.”
Aside from parrying brickbats hurled at the MMDA, Pialago recalled being ridiculed for her beauty pageant booboo, with the bashers saying she was hired only for her looks.
“When you’re good-looking, or even just because you’re a woman, people often think you have no substance and that you’re not qualified for the job,” Pialago said.
But her work experience before her MMDA post speaks of her capacity to bounce back.
Pialago had a stint as anchor for government media outfits RTVM and PTV 4, where she learned about the news cycle.
In 2015, she served as media relations officer for then acting Makati Mayor Romulo “Kid” Peña, and later performed the same function for the Mar Roxas presidential campaign.
Her short albeit intense stints in handling political PR may help explain why Pialago was among those considered when presidential spokesperson Harry Roque stepped down from his job.
As it turned out, working at the MMDA has its share of stress. But for Pialago, “educating (the people) on traffic is kind of like being God’s messenger. Even if you can only save one soul, you’re good.”
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