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September 5, 2016 / emmanintheworld

BRT: From TransMilenio to TransCebu

Everyone knows that the traffic in Manila is hellish. The highways become parking lots even if the rush ‘hour’ has long since passed. Public transportation is ill-maintained and disorganized. There are tens of thousands of vehicles that pass through the overcrowded EDSA, the main highways of Metro Manila.The situation is so bad that President Duterte wants the Congress to grant him emergency powers to solve this issue.

But what exactly should be done in order to solve the ever-present traffic problem?

One of the solutions that has long been proposed is the development of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in urban cities. The BRT is a system where buses have exclusive lanes (typically in the center of the road) to avoid mixed congestion. This is usually done at surface level, which basically means that BRTs are like subways on the street-level.

The benefits of the BRT, compared to the present setup in the urban cities in the Philippines, are obvious: (1) Unruly bus drivers won’t be able to clog traffic because of the dedicated lanes. In this setup, they are physically limited to a single lane and passengers can only board on specific terminals. (2) Colorum buses won’t be able to operate anymore since they would be prevented from entering the bus-only lanes. This should maximize the bus occupancy rate during the off-peak hours. (3) Private vehicle owners would be incentivized to use the BRT instead of driving the cars given that the bus lanes would have faster traffic flows. Buses also have priority in intersections, which would contribute to the commuter’s shorter travel time. (4) Unlike railways and elevated roads, the construction of BRTs should be faster and at a fraction of the cost since it is only surface-level. While the 16.9-kilometer MRT line in EDSA took 5 years before it was inaugurated, the time it took for the initial BRT line to develop, from idea to operation, was 36 months.

Perhaps the most famous example of this system is TransMilenio, Bogota’s 112-km BRT line. The world’s largest BRT system began in December 2000 and was so successful that commuters are saving 233 hours annually. Air pollutants are down by 40 percent since the implementation of the system. There was also an observed reduction in fatalities (92 percent), injuries (75 percent), and collisions (79 percent). That viral quote about the “rich using transportation” is also attributed to Enrique Penalosa, the mayor of Bogota who championed for the use of the BRT.

Given that the BRT system has been successful in many urban cities around the world, how are we not pushing for this to be present in the Philippines?

Well, there are already plans to develop a similar system in Manila and Cebu. President Aquino has approved a 12-kilometer Manila-Quezon line last December 2015. There are also talks of BRT systems in the present administration (one along EDSA and one replacing the LRT-2 line), though none has been finalized yet. Although these proposals could be at risk of being stuck in government bureaucracy, there is already a BRT project that should start construction soon: TransCebu.

The BRT system in Cebu City , which has an initial line of 11-kilometers, will start construction in 2016 and should be complete in 2018. This project is financed jointly by the Philippine government and the World Bank. The dedicated bus lanes would also have a total of 176 buses and would service an estimated 330,000 passengers daily.

With the way public works projects are usually handled in the country, it is worth checking if the implementation is up to international standards. The Metro Rail Transit, for example, had delays in every phase of the project because of perceived irregularities and lawsuits. From the awarding of the contract in 1989, the MRT project was in limbo until construction finally started in 1995.

According to the World Bank status report released on June 2, 2016, the Cebu BRT project was rated ‘moderately satisfactory’ on the both ‘Progress towards Achievement of Project Development Objective’ and ‘Overall Implementation Progress’. However, the risk attached to this project was bumped to ‘High’ from the ‘Substantial’ rating it got in the previous status report. The higher risk rating comes mainly from the Technical Design and the Institutional Capacity for Implementation and Sustainability categories. It seems like the bottlenecks are caused by lack of technical knowledge and slow decision-making (particularly on environmental and right of way issues).

In order for a smooth and immediate transition from the current setup to the BRT system, it’s important that the Department of Transportation and the Cebu City government look at TransMilenio as a learning experience. The Colombian BRT line has been lauded internationally given the agreeable partnership between the government and its stakeholders in its initial line.

An office under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) used TransMilenio as a case study for successful private-public partnerships (PPP). It attributed the BRT line’s success to a number of factors including the participation of stakeholders in the transport industry, the political and financial support for the project, and the allocation of technical support. The roles of the public and private sector are clearly differentiated. Both the Ministry of Transport and the city government work as regulators while a specific government-owned corporation oversees the construction and maintenance of the BRT system. Lastly, a private consortium controls the operations.The details of the operations are also defined between the bus operators, fare collectors, and the control center.

With the differentiated roles between all stakeholders, there is minimal gray areas where misunderstandings (and lawsuits) can take place. Financial equity has also been a priority during the consultations which may have contributed to the working partnership between the stakeholders. Private bus operators are also consulted from the start in order to ensure an agreeable deal given that the BRT may push some drivers out of business.

At the same time, we should also look at how TransMilenio is currently having problems scaling up its initial successes since critics from both inside and outside the systems are opposing its expansion.

The former deputy general manager of TransMilenio, Dario Hidalgo, said that the opposition facing the BRT line is caused by the lack of political support for the system. He said that former Mayor Penalosa’s opponents attacked TransMilenio because it was his pet project. It is also bucking under the weight of its own success since buses and terminals are now overcrowded with commuters. Hidalgo said that they didn’t prioritize high quality user experience when coming up with the cost scheme, which resulted to lower quality service during peak hours. Confusion over the routes is also possible given the lack of maps in each stations.

These are issues that the officials working on the Cebu BRT should study since it is easy to imagine it happening in the country. If the TransCebu project is perceived to be a pet project of a particular administration or political family, it would be criticized similar to the 4Ps (which was pushed as one of President Aquino’s tangible legacies). The development of the BRT should be user-based given that political support for it would also depend on public opinion. Quality service should be prioritized, even at the expense of cheap fares, since government subsidization could always be done.

There’s a lot riding on TransCebu since it is seen as a prototype for the Manila implementation. If done properly, this would not only solve the traffic but also usher in economic growth to both urban cities and the surrounding rural areas. With luck, Manila won’t be the “gates of hell” anymore.

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