POSTSCRIPT / June 8, 2000 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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The cross that road users carry is getting heavier

MAKE the sign of the cross, dear reader.

The government is about to slap us with a 100-percent road users’ tax. The insatiable oil ogre is poised again to raise by more than a peso the pump price of its gasoline. The monumental mismanagement of Metro Manila traffic is getting worse. The North Luzon Expressway operator does not sound interested in making the country’s longest tollway a Traffic Safety and Discipline Zone.

Of course, President Estrada and the rest of officialdom, not to mention the leeches living off them, are not a bit bothered by the gathering darkness. At taxpayer’s expense, they continue to zip around in luxurious official cars guzzling government gasoline, with sirens, flashers and armed escorts clearing the way for them.

* * *

THE ratification by the House of Representative of the road users’ tax measure Tuesday evening paves the way for its signing into law by President Estrada within 30 days.

The House rushed approval on signal from the President, who was reported to be scrounging for funds for the escalation of the war in Mindanao. The same measure was earlier passed in the Senate.

The press release said that in its desire not to overburden road users, Congress spread the 100-percent increase over four years – 25 percent in the first year, 50 percent in the second, 75 percent in the third, and 100 percent in the fourth year.

* * *

WE made a fast calculation based on this information and confirmed our fears that raising the car registration fee by that escalating percentage every year would be more exorbitant than imposing a straight 100 percent from the very first year.

Will somebody please clarify how the registration fees are to be computed every year? Imagine the catastrophic consequences of adding yearly a 25, 50, 75 and a 100-percent increase based on the previous year’s rate!

Compute it and you’ll see that it’s cheaper to just slap a 100-percent increase starting with the first year than tacking every year an escalating percentage of the previous rate.

* * *

AS we’ve seen this rerun of the same zarzuela countless times before, we share with you the ending: The P1.15 per-liter price increase being bandied about by the oil cartel and the so-called new players will be shaved to around 50 centavos after a meeting with President Estrada whose heart bleeds allegedly for the poor.

With the Big 3 thus deigning to “sacrifice” and suffer more losses, the President is supposed to have scored another victory for his beloved masses. And we consumers are supposed to be eternally grateful to our President and the oil firms.

I want to cry.

* * *

IT is at times like this when we start asking where Bataan Rep. Enrique Garcia is. He suddenly stopped talking to us after we put forward a compromise formula that could water down his proposed National Oil Exchange (OilEx).

The OilEx is an inspired idea of this Esso executive turned legislator. It envisions a government agency buying cheaper fuel through international bidding and forcing the oil cartel to join the bidding if they want to sell locally. The OilEx bill, alas, has not moved much either in the House or the Senate.

* * *

BUT the congressman made a mistake when he remarked that our compromise formula on the OilEx was actually an idea of the oil companies that we were floating for them. He should not have said that, because he knows it is not true.

As a politician, he should not be too rigid in his positioning. Politics being the art of compromise, he should have seen the merits of moving slightly toward the other extreme position of the oil companies after one of them (Petron) hinted it was willing to move toward him for a win-win formula.

Neither the oil cartel nor the congressman could win them all. If the two protagonists stick to their extremist positions, the OilEx will remain a mere idea and the status quo remains. That’s bad, because the status quo of continually rising fuel prices is bad for the consuming public.

* * *

TO refresh everybody’s memory, here’s a recap of our compromise formula

The oil firms will continue to operate their refineries, storage facilities and gas stations retailing their branded products. They can join the international bidding to be called by the National Oil Exchange, but will not be required to buy refined products from it or sell only OilEx items.

Operating parallel to them, the OilEx will buy gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products directly from the lowest bidder anywhere in the world. It will store its supply initially in the Subic-Clark depots (capacity is 25 percent of national inventory), and compete with the Big 3 and other players. Businessmen who want to sell OilEx products can put up gas stations, because OilEx itself will not go into the retail business.

* * *

CONGRESSMAN Garcia is insisting on an all-or-nothing proposition. He wants the oil companies to sell their products locally only through the OilEx, and this they must do by joining the OilEx bidding for the cheapest petroleum products.

We understand his fear of the Big 3 and his fixation on monopolies. He might be worried that if the oil companies are allowed to continue retailing their products through their extensive network of gas stations, they might just defeat the OilEx by sheer dominant market presence.

But that is precisely the essence of free enterprise. The ultimate decision of which product to buy will rest on the consuming public. If it is true, as Garcia claims, that OilEx products will be cheaper, he should have no fear of competing. His potential for a 25-percent share of supply is big enough for a good start.

* * *

ANYWAY, to buttress his claim that we could have cheaper fuel if we conducted international bidding, congressman Garcia may want to publish a current list of sources that sell petroleum products at prices lower than that of the local oil firms.

He keeps mentioning 40 refineries and traders offering lower prices, but so far he has been able to identify only Singapore. But even Singapore, we heard, does not always have lower ex-refinery prices. Sometimes its prices are higher.

If local refineries are not sure they could win the OilEx bids, the uncertainty may force them to close altogether. When the landed cost in Manila of OilEx imports goes higher and local refineries have ceased operating because of the uncertainty, what would the OilEx do?

* * *

THESE and several other issues have prompted us to wed the two extremes of the Big 3 and the OilEx.

The golden mean may be somewhere between the two extremes. If congressman Garcia would be less inflexible, a compromise formula could be found. (This assumes that the oil companies are also willing to lose some and creep toward the middle when Garcia and his co-sponsors also start looking toward them.)

The impending oil price increases and those still to come should jolt us into looking fast for the happy formula, which we think lies between the extreme positions of the Big 3 and the OilEx.

* * *

FINALLY, we got a response from the Philippine National Construction Corp. which operates the North Luzon Expressway to our other proposal to make the tollway a Traffic Safety and Discipline Zone (or Safdiz with a long “a”).

Safdiz calls for proper engineering for the NLE, an education program and strict 24-hour enforcement of the road rules. We think that no-nonsense enforcement would educate motorists not only on road ethics but also on other aspects of citizenship.

Consistent enforcement could condition motorists to drop their bad driving antics upon entering the NLE and to automatically switch to disciplined expressway motoring. Filipino drivers will obey the rules gladly when they see fair, consistent enforcement. We have seen this traffic discipline in Camp John Hay and the Subic Free Port. Why not at the NLE?

* * *

PNCC vice president Leonilo G. Javier, head of the firm’s tollways group, said in a reaction, “We acknowledge the wisdom and prudence which you have indicated in your column and we are more than willing to listen to anybody who could assist us in providing a safe, comfortable, traffic-free tollway to our motoring public.”

He noted that while the 30-year-old expressway was originally built to accommodate 75,000 vehicles daily, the number of users has more than doubled. This has taken its toll on the road.

“This is the precise reason why we have entered into a joint venture agreement with the Manila North Tollway Corp. for its modernization and upgrading,” Javier said. “While the construction of the tollway is still ongoing, the PNCC will continue with its commitment of providing safe roadway through its regular maintenance and repair works.”

He added: “We do appreciate and concede the values of the three Es which you have mentioned (Engineering, Education, Enforcement) to gain a ‘Traffic Safety and Discipline Zone.’”

* * *

BUT Javier did not sound prepared or eager to discuss our Safdiz proposal and the PNCC’s willingness or readiness to launch a project that could help change the outlook of Filipinos toward motoring and everything else.

If his letter is any indication, the NLE will remain the way it is now — a death trap, a torture test for vehicles, a monument to bad highways engineering and to tollway mismanagement. Most of all, it will not be disturbed as a productive milking cow.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 8, 2000)

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