Solons back Metro traffic measure
To make its roadways breathe, Metro Manila needs 3,000 more kilometers of roads―that’s the distance between Manila and Tokyo.
There are 15,000 vehicles at any given hour on Edsa, mostly crawling at 5 kilometers per hour (kph), 10 kph if lucky.
Such is life in a metropolis said to have “the worst traffic on Earth” that senators could see why giving President Duterte emergency powers is necessary to deal with the traffic crisis.
Several lawmakers on Wednesday expressed openness to granting the President extraordinary powers to ease the crippling traffic congestion in Metro Manila and other key metropolitan areas even as they sought assurances of transparency and accountability from transportation executives should the request be approved.
“Traffic congestion is not just happening during rush hours, but all throughout the day. It is an ‘economic hemorrhage’ that needs serious attention and in dire need of immediate treatment,” said Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito, vice chair of the Senate committee on public services, who has authored a bill granting the President emergency powers for two years.
“We need a fast and effective solution to stop this economic hemorrhage,” Ejercito said in a five-hour hearing that brought transportation officials to the Senate on Wednesday.
Senate President Pro Tempore Franklin Drilon, the first to file an emergency powers bill in the chamber, said the need for extended powers was no longer a question. It was just a matter of how it should be executed.
“The horrors of this traffic crisis spare no one. Nobody is immune from its choking grip. It steals from every Filipino’s time, regardless of position or state in life. It’s time to turn this crisis around,” said Drilon, who recounted an 11.5-hour ordeal on the North Luzon Expressway on his way to Baguio City sometime in 2014.
He said his proposal, Senate Bill No. 11, sought “to give the President the necessary and proper powers to immediately address the national emergency.”
Speed up procurement
Both Drilon’s and Ejercito’s bills, along with Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano’s proposal, seek to give Duterte special powers to speed up the procurement of materials and services for infrastructure projects geared toward easing traffic congestion.
The proposals also aim to shield government projects, particularly right-of-way actions, from injunctions issued by the courts, except the Supreme Court.
Sen. Joel Villanueva said “most members” of the chamber were willing to grant the executive’s request. “They should just make sure that the terrible traffic will be addressed, and most of all, there would be safeguard and they will be fiscally responsible,” he said when asked of his stand.
Sen. Richard Gordon said the President’s request should not even be called “emergency powers” because the extended authority was “necessary” to address the magnitude of the problem.
Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara agreed with his colleagues, so long as government projects initiated through emergency powers would be open to public checks.
Sen. Grace Poe, the committee chair who led Wednesday’s committee hearing, is holding out on her position, saying several issues must be threshed out first.
“As chair of the committee, I have to maintain objectivity at this point to hear all sides,” she said.
During the hearing, Poe assured the Duterte administration that the Senate “will not be competing with you in finding problems” and instead “will be cooperating with you in finding solutions.”
Safeguards against abuse
Still, Poe brought up the need for strict safeguards against abuse.
“Giving the President emergency powers necessarily raises concerns about concentration of powers in one person as this could easily be abused. There are fears that if we grant emergency powers for this issue, then we open the floodgates to granting emergency powers for other so-called ‘crisis’ or ‘emergencies,’” she said.
She said the grant of special powers should be compliant with the freedom of information (FOI) executive order, covering “all activities, contracts, projects, bidding, documents, awards, payments made pursuant to the act of granting emergency powers.”
Poe said the use of emergency powers must also be “fiscally responsible,” in that contracts should be given out judiciously.
“We may allow you to take shortcuts for as long as they do not shortchange the taxpayers. There must be no hidden costs, or undeclared conditional debts that will be passed on to several generations,” she said.
She said all projects should have clear details and deadlines. “I assure you, there will be elbow room and wide latitude given but not wide enough for thieves to sneak in.”
Too many obstacles
Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade led the roster of 27 officials who presented to senators the breadth of the traffic problem in Metro Manila.
“There are too many obstacles toward solving the traffic crisis. That’s why I have come here to you, pleading to give us emergency powers,” Tugade said.
“This cannot be solved by one person. There are too many problems. There’s the people, policy, structure, bidding (process) … too many. I cannot say there is just one problem, lest I’ll be accused of oversimplifying. The traffic issue is one issue that cannot be oversimplified,” Tugade said in response to a question from Sen. Manny Pacquiao.
Tugade cited the problematic overlap of functions of transportation agencies, prompting Drilon to propose the suspension of local government traffic powers during the period of the emergency powers grant.
Tugade assured Poe that if the powers were granted, the Department of Transportation and its attached agencies would exercise the expanded authority with prudence.
“I give you my word. Whatever we do not only in relation with emergency powers, we shall be FOI compliant. I stand on spirit of accountability and transparency. We will give you the timelines, the deadlines that will guide us in our pursuit of what we think is necessary … We shall be open and transparent when it comes to costs,” he said.
Realistic about what the government could do, Tugade said the public should not expect emergency powers “to solve all transportation problems if it is given.”
“This crisis is a result of decades of neglect. Do not expect that I could solve it overnight, in 100 days, not even in two years. What I can assure you is that you will feel a difference during that period,” he said.
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