Free Edsa rides ending; privatized busway eyed
Starting New Year’s Day, hundreds of thousands of passengers using the Edsa Bus Carousel will again pay for their fares on Metro Manila’s busiest road after the government stopped funding the free rides ahead of a plan to privatize the busway operation in 2023.
Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista on Wednesday said that the 24/7 “Libreng Sakay” program will end on Dec. 31 and buses will start collecting fares at 5 a.m. the next day.
The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) said in August that Libreng Sakay was not a regular government program and was not included in the 2023 National Expenditure Program of President Marcos, who extended it from June 30, when it was supposed to have ended, to Dec. 31.
The service contracting program, which facilitated Libreng Sakay for 25 months starting November 2020, was a “nonrecurring or a one-time expenditure item” introduced by lawmakers during the pandemic.
The Department of Transportation (DOTr) proposed a P12-billion budget to continue the free ride program in 2023 but this was disapproved by the DBM.
Next year, the DOTr will bid out a contract to take over the operations of the Edsa Busway, Bautista said during the opening rites of a new Edsa Carousel bus stop in Pasay City.
The DOTr will invite bidders for the concession agreement covering the busway by the first half of next year, he said.
Bautista said the government was also open to “unsolicited proposals.”
The concession agreement includes the operation and maintenance of the bus stations, he said, noting that this may also include the construction of additional infrastructure, if needed.
The feasibility study for the busway privatization is ongoing, with the goal of completing this by the first quarter of 2023, according to Bautista.
A preliminary market sounding activity, which is being done by the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Center of the Philippines as part of the process of approving the application for the funding of the feasibility study, was recently conducted for the Edsa Busway system, which serves an average of 389,579 passengers daily.
Bautista earlier said that making the busway a PPP project could benefit the commuters as the operator would be able to introduce innovations such as an automated fare collection system.
From Monumento in Caloocan City to the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange (PITX), the busway now has 17 median stations, four temporary curbside stations and an integrated terminal exchange.
The transport chief did not say how much the bus fares would be starting New Year’s Day, but these would be “highly regulated” by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB).
According to an LTFRB fare matrix, the fare from Monumento to PITX should currently be P52.75 for air-conditioned buses and P46.25 for ordinary buses.
Bautista said the DOTr would continue improving the “services and infrastructure” of the busway.
“The Edsa busway must conform to international standards. There’s a lot to do here,” he said.
He cited the increase in the number of bus passengers as one of the reasons for improving its efficiency.
80M passengers benefited
The LTFRB had recorded a total of 80,832,186 passengers who benefited from Libreng Sakay since the start of the program.
There are 87 operators with 751 buses that participated in the service contracting program, according to the LTFRB.
The total number of buses now allowed on the busway is down to just around 23 percent of the 3,300 that plied Edsa before the pandemic.
Launched in June 2020, the busway was a joint undertaking of the DOTr, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), and the Department of Public Works and Highways. Passengers then had to pay for their fares until the government offered free rides a few months later.
The busway was intended to augment the shortage in train capacity due to transportation restrictions imposed at the height of the pandemic.
The MMDA on Wednesday said it would work to improve traffic management after the holidays in anticipation of the increasing volume of vehicles in the national capital.
Speaking at the Laging Handa briefing, Undersecretary Frisco San Juan Jr., MMDA deputy chair, said the number of vehicles passing daily through Metro Manila’s main thoroughfares, especially Edsa, had exceeded prepandemic levels.
“We’re reaching 420,000 plus [vehicles], sometimes up to 430,000. But despite this, we were able to improve our traffic flow which is faster than the level in the prepandemic years,” San Juan said. “It will be a big challenge [in 2023] because of the continuing increase of vehicles.”
He said that with social mobility increasing due to the easing of pandemic health restrictions, the MMDA and the DOTr would be looking at ways to expand mass transportation while managing road traffic.
San Juan said the MMDA would prioritize the welfare of pedestrians and bicycle-riders by continuing to clear sidewalks and convincing local governments to designate more bike lanes. —WITH REPORTS FROM JEROME ANING AND INQUIRER RESEARCH INQ
Calls for Edsa busway privatization get louder
DOTr chief backs Edsa busway privatization
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.