ROUGH CUTS| The objective is noble; but the outcome?

     WHEN Congress during the time of former President Fidel V. Ramos introduced a bill seeking for the deregulation of the energy industry in the country, everybody was hoping that finally they might have a choice for lower fuel cost from gas dealers.

   When it was passed into law during the same administration, the people heaved a sigh of relief. They thought then that deliverance had come for those who are shackled with the exorbitant cost of fuel in the country and its effect on the cost of essential goods and services.

     Unfortunately, the objective of the Energy Industry Deregulation law did not materialize. Yes, there were options opened. But for fuel users they could only select one – to gas up in a station they would want to. As to the option of choosing in terms of lower cost it was one biggest disappointment that befell on them. All players, the new and small ones included, already have similar per liter fuel costs.

     The new energy industry players were as quick as the proverbial “lightning” in leveling up their per litter gas prices with the big ones. Today, especially those in the peripheral areas are even selling their fuel at costs higher than the supposed “big ones” in the industry.

     When we had the opportunity to talk with a spokesman of a relatively new but already big player in the industry, we were told that it has to be that way because if they reduce their company’s per liter cost of fuel the big players could immediately put them out of business because they can afford to “out low” the small ones.

     Now we should not be surprised to find in almost every road stretch, be these are in the urban or sub-urban areas, new gas stations of “small players” in the energy industry.

     After all, these new players are already very much a part of the cartelized determination of fuel cost. They even have no impediments at all in increasing their prices to the point that they have a very effective spokesman, the Department of Energy (DOE) who, every time there is an increase in fuel pump prices, makes the announcement together with the justification that there is movement in the prices of oil in the world market. And any increase announced is even “effective immediately”, or upon getting up in the morning after the announcement was made in the evening prior.

     What about the operators and drivers of public utility vehicles?

     They have to fight tooth and nail against the legal obstacles brought to bear upon them every time they seek for fare increase. More often, the drivers have to make the riding public their sacrificial lambs if only to deliver their message to government regulators.

     Now come this other potential Armagedon for both drivers and operators: the government- proposed transport modernization program.

     The objective of the program is, like the Energy Industry Deregulation Law, supposedly for the good of the general public — the carbon dioxide-suffocated population, commuters, the public utility drivers, the operators, and the vehicle manufacturing industry in the country.

     But will modernizing the transport system really redound to the benefit of all the prior-mentioned stakeholders? The government, through the Department of Transportation and the agencies under it like the Land Transportation Franchising Regulatory Board (LTFRB) and the Land Transportation Office (LTO), of course will insist that it does.

     However, certain stakeholders in the public transportation business are insisting that the biggest sector to feel the ill-effects of the transport modernization program if carried out is the riding public. They justify their assertion by advancing the theory that when the program starts to reckon its implementation cost it is the riding public that pays for it. In fact, the militant Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), a labor union, claims that the minimum transport fare could go up as high as P20.

     Another group that could end up to be the second most affected are the operators, especially those with one or two or even three units of public utility jeepneys only. According to PISTON, an organization of jeep drivers and operators, under the Transport Modernization Program, an operator should have at least a minimum of ten (10) units for him to be issued a franchise by the LTFRB.

     Worst, according to PISTON, a unit of the so-called modern jeep design costs an average of P1.5 million. So, even if government would give a non-payable subsidy of P80 thousand to foot the cost of down payment for each unit the balance would still be one hell of monthly amortization to pay to the bank.

     The LTFRB though has a ready measure to address that particular apprehension of the drivers and operators. The agency advises the drivers to evolve into operators themselves, and with operators of one, two or three units of public utility jeeps to form cooperatives that will be the ones to apply for the franchise and the small operators’ membership in the coop will be in accordance with the number of units he would want to get.

     Again the intention of the program as envisioned by the government is good. But the drivers’ and operators’ and even private vehicle owners’ experience in the Energy Deregulation Law has remained fresh in their minds. They know very well that this early there are already influential big businessmen working very strongly to have the program implemented because they are the ones looking forward to getting the orders for the acquisition of the modern, supposedly environmentally compliant vehicle models to replace the old and environment unfriendly public utility jeepneys.

     These businessmen, the opposition sectors are claiming, will be hitting the high grade gold mines once the program is in place.

     The drivers and operators will be pushed deeper into the muck of indebtedness, the government subsidy notwithstanding.

     The riding public, as usual, will have to dig their pockets even deeper when the fare rates take a leap.

Posted in Opinion