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Traffic czar

It is really not hard to see that the traffic situation in Metro Manila is going from bad to worse.

A  retired prince of the church, 83-year-old Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, had to get out of his car walk more than a kilometer in pouring rain to direct traffic himself. There are calls for the appointment of a traffic czar so that there can be a coordinated effort on the national level to address the worsening problem.

We are very fond of appointing so-called czars to address pressing problems. If there is a rice problem, we appoint a rice czar. With the traffic gridlock in Metro Manila getting worse every year, someone has suggested that Secretary Jose Rene Almendras be appointed traffic czar so that he can call on any government agency and coordinate their efforts which the chairman of MMDA cannot currently do.

It is doubtful whether this move would improve traffic. It may just add another layer of bureaucracy which will only complicate the problem. There really is no need to appoint a traffic czar. For one, we already have one in the person of the Secretary of Transportation and Communications. Years ago, when I was detached from the Philippine National Police to handle traffic in Metro Manila, former President Fidel Ramos, in an executive order, designated then-Secretary Arturo Enrile of the DOTC to oversee the overall traffic management in Metro Manila. This was towards the end of 1997 or early 1998.

If the government is really bent on having a traffic czar, all that the President should do is to direct Secretary Abaya to start exercising his prerogatives. He was of course the one who said that traffic is a problem but is not fatal. This gives the public a glimpse of his attitude towards the problem. This, plus the simplistic remark of President Aquino that the traffic problem is a sign of progress, does not give the public any confidence that this administration understand the gravity of the situation.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of attitude that permeates the whole government bureaucracy when it comes to traffic management in the metropolitan area. It is either surrender or paralysis driven by the magnitude of the problem. To be sure, the problem is immense. But if one understands it and knows what has to be done, it would be a very good start.

The trouble is, the people who have been designated to solve and manage the problem are giving the public the impression that they do not know or understand what they are doing. They seem to be trying their best to worsen the problem. If there is understanding of the problem, why did the MMDA attempt to reserve two lanes of the already-congested Edsa for pedestrians and bicycles? It is mind-boggling.

There has always been this debate of who to appoint as chairman of the MMDA—a politician or someone who is technically trained and capable to handle the complexities of traffic management. It is, after all, a lot more complicated than what people think. Over the years, the appointment has always gone to a politician. The reason being is that a politician can better relate to the seventeen mayors of the different cities and municipalities that comprise the National Capital Region.

The result of this practice, I dare say, has not been good. Except for the regular infrastructure projects planned by the DOTC and DPWH, no significant projects were ever undertaken by the MMDA to qualitatively improve traffic in Metro Manila. But since no trained traffic engineer was ever appointed as chairman, we of course do not have any basis for comparison. Because the traffic problem can only grow worse before it can get any better, there is a need to approach the problem in a much different and radical way.

Let me illustrate. By the end of the year, vehicle sales will add around 300,000 vehicles on the road and this will grow at the rate of about 20 percent every year. By the year 2020, people will be buying around 600,000 vehicles or more a year because of increasing incomes.

If nothing is done to ameliorate the traffic problem in the metro area, vehicles will be traveling at less than five or seven kilometers per hour. At that rate, everything would ground to a halt. Nothing would  get done. There is therefore a need to radically revise the way government agencies plan and implement projects. Otherwise, there will be no chance at all to alleviate the problem.

We must remember that whatever we do, there is no action that can be implemented to solve the problem the way everybody wants it. This is not possible. What can be done is to be able to use the existing road system more efficiently for the benefit of all. The current government projects being undertaken are unfortunately not enough. It took five years for this administration to construct a four-kilometer by-pass road. The skyway that will eventually connect the SLEX and NLEX, by the time it is completed, will no longer be enough. We will probably need another one further east of the current skyway. In addition, we will need an east-west elevated highway to be connected with the north-south skyway and this will have to be done fast.

Unfortunately, we are stuck in our slow process that it will probably take the administration beginning in 2022 to start another project. Election fever has already taken over and nothing will get done from now until we inaugurate a new President.


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