‘Libreng Sakay’ must continue – LRay

February 11, 2023 Ryan Ponce Pacpaco 111 views

CAMARINES Sur Representative LRay Villafuerte has questioned the “surprising turnabout” of transport officials from an earlier government plan to resume this year its “Libreng Sakay” program along the national capital’s main thoroughfare, despite an earlier assurance by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) of limited funding for free bus rides on the EDSA Carousel.

“I hope our transport executives were just joking when they said just recently that they were ditching Libreng Sakay altogether despite the availability of limited funds from the DBM, because it does not speak well of our officials in this sector when their first response is to simply give it up instead of exhausting other means to try to keep this pro-masa program going till end-2023, at the least, such as asking Malacañan Palace or DBM to augment this year’s budget for the SCP (Service Contracting Program),” Villafuerte said.

Villafuerte recalled that he appealed to the then President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos Jr. in June 2022 to retain Libreng Sakay as its budget was only good till the end of the then-Duterte administration, and on his first full day as President last July 1, the new Chief Executive promptly approved a proposal by his Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista to continue this program till end-December.

Following President Marcos’ approval of Libreng Sakay’s extension, Villafuerte said the DBM quickly released P1.4 billion for the SCP that same month, so the Department of Transportation (DOTr), through the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) could pay the two contracted bus consortiums – ES Transport & Partners Consortium and Mega Manila Consortium Corp. – to keep giving free rides on the EDSA Bus Carousel over the July-December 2022 period.

“So I am at a loss over this surprise turnaround by our transport officials when DBM Secretary Mena (Amenah Pangandaman) herself confirmed last month that P1.285 billion had been set aside for Libreng Sakay so the government could restart it this year,” he said.

Villafuerte recalled that Pangandaman even said in a January 12 press release that: “May pondo po ang Service Contracting Program sa ating FY 2023 GAA. Naglaan po ang pamahalaan ng P1.285 billion para maipagpatuloy ang programang ito ngayong taon.”

Pangandaman explained last month that, “Malaking tulong po ang tipid-pasahe sa araw-araw na pamumuhay ng mga kababayan natin. Whatever amount they save daily, they can reallocate to equally or more important needs such as budget for food, electricity, tuition fee, among others.”

“Transport officials have to explain to us why – out of the blue – they seemed to have had a supposed epiphany that Libreng Sakay is no longer needed and that they would just realign the SCP budget to other transport projects such as fare discounts,” Villafuerte said.

In a January 16 statement, Villafuerte welcomed the original government plan this 2023 to continue with this free-bus-rides project along EDSA, given that it would provide another financial relief to Metro Manila commuters grappling with the ever-increasing cost of living.

He said in that statement that, “The DOTr must see to it that the LTFRB fast-tracks the documentation process, including the contract-signing with the two bus consortiums participating in Libreng Sakay, so this project on free bus rides can be restarted soon enough for the benefit of ordinary commuters in Metro Manila.”

But barely a week after Villafuerte called on the DOTr and LTFRB to work closely with the DBM on the early restart of the Libreng Sakay, given Pangandaman’s announcement of SCP funds, LTFRB chairman Teofilo Guadiz III and DOTr officials announced in a January 27 press briefing that this project may no longer push through despite its almost P1.3-billion allotment.

Guadiz reportedly announced in the press briefing that the government may no longer push through with Libreng Sakay this year despite the DBM’s allotment of almost P1.3 billion for it, as DOTr officials were instead eyeing the implementation of an expanded discount system for buses and other public utility vehicles (PUVs).

However, Guadiz was quoted as saying that: “For now, we are awaiting instructions from the DOTr. The intention is to stretch the money for as long as we can to include jeepneys and shuttle rides – not only buses.”

Guadiz said that instead of giving free bus rides, DOTr officials were now leaning towards giving discount cards. “If we would continue the Libreng Sakay, then the estimate is that the fund will only last for four months, so what may happen is that we will just be giving discounts. That is the leaning.”

Aside from the move to stretch the almost P1.3-billion budget for the program, Guadiz said another reason why Libreng Sakay may no longer be pursued is that DOTr officials want to have as many commuters and other transport groups benefit from the program.

Villafuerte pointed out, though, that this new DOTr-LTFRB “leaning” – as revealed in last Jan. 27’s presser – “runs counter to the earlier government plan to restart Libreng Sakay this year, after Pangandaman confirmed last Jan. 12 a P1.285-billion outlay in the 2023 General Appropriations Act (GAA) for the SCP.”

The SCP for Libreng Sakay had, till end-December, provided free bus rides on the EDSA Carousel route from MCU (Manila Central University) in Caloocan City to PITX (Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange) in Parañaque City.

After Pangandaman announced the P1.285-billion SCP budget for 2023, Villafuerte then asked DOTr’s Bautista to “lobby Malacañan Palace or DBM to provide a supplemental budget for SCP so the DOTr, through the LTFRB, could carry out Libreng Sakay till end-December this year, given estimates by transport officials that the available outlay funder the 2023 national budget is enough only to provide free bus rides along EDSA for four or six months.”

“With the rates of commodity price hikes in December and January rising at their fastest in 14 years, it is incumbent upon the DOTr and LTFRB to work closely with the DBM on speeding up the paperwork needed to restart Libreng Sakay as well as the release of the 2023 funds intended for SCP, so the government could continue offering free bus rides in Metro Manila, more so with the elevated, mostly imported, inflation, persisting this year,” Villafuerte said.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), headline inflation went up to 8.1% last December and a faster 8.7% in January, the highest rate since the 9.1% print in November 2008.

“It behooves the DOTr, LTFRB, and DBM to find ways to resume the free bus rides ASAP (as soon as possible) – and to scour for funds to extend this pro-poor program till the end of 2023 at the least – considering that NEDA (National Economic and Development Authority) director-general and concurrent Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said earlier that protecting the purchasing power of Filipinos remained on top of the Marcos administration’s priorities as domestic and global headwinds continue to be a challenge,” Villafuerte said.

Villafuerte stressed that “continued free bus rides, among other forms of subsidies for poor and low-income Filipinos, are extremely helpful for commuters in the national capital, given that in its Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2022 report, the ADB (Asian Development Bank) concluded that the poorest Filipinos need continued policy intervention and support to escape poverty because COVID-19 had adversely affected their lives and livelihoods.”

Libreng Sakay reportedly provided 165 million free bus rides in 2022, benefitting a daily average of 389,579 passengers, and peaked at over 400,000 during holidays.

Last year, transport officials said the LTFRB had spent about P10 million to P12 million daily for the two concessionaires to run 600 to 700 buses combined on the EDSA Bus Carousel under this project, which was first implemented by the previous (Duterte) administration in November 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Villafuerte pointed out that aside from students, workers, and other commuters, Libreng Sakay benefited over 600 drivers and operators belonging to the two bus service providers.

Libreng Sakay was started in November 2020 for the benefit of medical frontliners and other essential workers in a bid to provide free transport to them and keep economic activity partly going amid the mobility restrictions or community lockdowns that had paralyzed the economy.

In a “Laging Handa” press briefing at the Palace, LTFRB technical division head Joel Bolano said the program costs about P12 million a day or P4.38 billion a year, which is about double the allocation under the 2023 GAA.

For 2022, the then-Duterte government released P7 billion to the DOTr for Libreng Sakay. An extra P1.4-billion was released in September under the Marcos administration to extend its implementation until end-December.