BAYAN Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares on Friday demanded that the government postpone the increase in train fares until after the matter is settled in court, and said the timing of the increase—set to take effect on Sunday—seemed designed to head off any protest.
“There are no courts, and Congress is not in session, and most people have a hangover from the New Year,” Colmenares said.
But no holidays could shut down street protests, he said, noting that three previous attempts to raise train fares were blocked by such demonstrations.
Three days before the fare hike, a Metro Rail Transit-3 train stalled due to technical problems.
Passengers were asked to disembark from the train at around 5 p.m. at the Santolan station, where the car remained stalled for 40 minutes before leaving with no passengers aboard.
Colmenares said he will file a petition with the Supreme Court next week to block the implementation of the “unjustified” fare increase.
“They should not impose the new rates while the petition is before the Supreme Court,” he said. “They should wait for the Court’s decision.”
In Decmeber, the Department of Transportation and Communication said train fares would be raised on both the MRT and the LRT, with an increased base fare of P11 and P1 per additional kilometer starting Jan. 4.
Based on the new fares, an end-to-end trip on the MRT-3 will rise from P15 to P28, on the LRT-1 from P20 to P30 and LRT-2 from P15 to P25.
But Colmenares questioned the need for a fare increase when the government has allotted P2 billion for its rehabilitation.
“There is a P2 billion budget for the rehabilitation of the MRT and LRT, but they are still increasing fares. So where will that money go?” he said.
He also expressed fears that the P2 billion budget might be used as pork barrel.
Renato Reyes, secretary general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, said is group would seek relief from the Supreme Curt Monday, arguing that the DOTC abused its discretion and the rights of commuters, who were not heard when it approved the fare hike.
“We will assert that the train lines are public utilities that are subject to regulation,” Reyes said.
He said it was highly irregular for the DOTC to grant the private concessionaire a fare hike even though the private consortium had not applied for one.
Parañaque Rep. Gus Tambunting described the fare hike as “untimely and unjustifiable” and urged the administration to junk plans to impose them because of the poor condition of the three train lines.
Tambunting bewailed the lack of cooperation between the DOTC and its maintenance contractor, Autre Porte Technique Global Inc.
“It is clear that the poor quality of the MRT is due to their lack of cooperation and unwillingness to compromise for the good of the public,” said Tambunting, a member of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance.
Lawmakers learned during a congressional hearing last month that APT Global claims it has not been paid P500 million, while the DOTC refuses to pay because of the penalties the contractor has accrued.
“During the hearing, I castigated APT Global and the DOTC for the poor maintenance of the tracks and the MRT stations,” Tambunting said, but there was still no agreement to improve services.
APT Global won the MRT-3 temporary maintenance contract in August 2013 in a bidding with two other groups vying for the one-year P712.77 million project with a bid of P685.04 million.
The DOTC subsequently accused the company of breaching its contract by using substandard rails in its maintenance work.
Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya revealed last September that APT Global was penalized a total of at least P45.1 million in 2014 for operational malfunctions and the DOTC had to create a special group to supervise the maintenance operations due to the number of glitches.
“People are willing to pay for good service,” Tambunting said. “But if you have worn down tracks, open train doors, and broken elevators at the stations, it becomes unfair to ask passengers to pay more for the same kind of poor service.”
Tambunting said he is backing the scheduled probe of the fare hike by the House committee on transportation.
Abaya said his department would pursue the P53.9 billion equity buyout of the MRT-3 despite the Senate’s rejection of an item on the 2015 budget for that purpose.
Abaya said his agency would review the final form of the 2015 General Appropriations Act and determine how it could proceed with the takeover of the 16.9-kilometer line stretching along Edsa from North Ave. in Quezon City to Taft Ave. in Pasay City.
“We have to see the final form of the  budget and we’ll see what our options are,” Abaya said.
Abaya said the agency was looking at “more of a legal approach to things” for the buyout plan, after President Benigno Aquino III issued a directive to execute the government’s takeover of the project.
“Yes. How could we not? There’s an EO, which is basically a directive from the President that DOTC, DOF execute this,” he said.
A labor group meanwhile lammed the administration for removing the P10 billion subsidy for train riders and its decision to raise train fares by as much as 87 percent.
“Clearly there is a tale of inequality in this issue,” said the Partido ng Manggagawa. “First, the fare hike, as admitted by Secretary Abaya himself, is meant not for service upgrade but mainly for debt payments to an onerous contract with a private concessionaire. Second, the budget cut is imposed against poor commuters while travel budget for public officials keeps on increasing,” said PM spokesman Wilson Fortaleza.
Fortaleza said that based on available data the MRT and LRT systems carry an estimated load of 500 million riders every year mostly from the working class. A market survey done by Nielsen in 2009 showed blue collar workers comprising 41 percent of train riders.