“The Aquino government should not treat our expressways like a milking cow; it should recognize it as a form of social service to the public.” TUTOL-SLEX
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA — Questions still linger over the price tag of the South Luzon Expressways (SLEx) project, which had ballooned more than twice its projected amount, from P5.88 billion($138.9m) to P12.5 billion ($295.2m). Why and how it happened in just four years has not yet been probed by the government despite the demands of consumers and taxpayers’ groups. Instead, the government, through its Toll Regulatory Board, had approved late last year increases in toll fee levels based on this still unexplained project cost.
But before this year ends the government appears bent on coming out with another hike in toll fees, because another round is looming ahead as it gears up to impose the value-added tax (VAT) on its “approved” toll fees. In a picket protest before the Toll Regulatory Board, the TUTOL-SLEx, an alliance composed of taxpayers, consumers and transport workers and small operators, has urged the TRB and the public to stop this “added burden.”
“The Aquino government should not treat our expressways like a milking cow; it should recognize it as a form of social service to the public,” reasoned Sammy Malunes, spokesperson of TUTOL-SLEx. Malunes had worked at the government-owned LRT (Light Rail Transit) until 2001, when majority of the employees including him who was then the union president were dismissed for having defended their right to strike. Malunes and other members of the LRT union have since joined groups that remind the government of the public service component of the country’s railways and toll roads.
In a protest before the Toll Regulatory Board last Sept 1, the TUTOL-SLEx urged President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III to scrap “this plan of robbing people who don’t have choices other than use the expressways in travelling.”
Lack of due process, again
TUTOL-SLEx pointed out once more the TRB’s seeming lack of due process in setting toll fees.
After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of imposing VAT on toll fees, the TRB has reportedly prepared to tackle the increase in toll fees being collected along the country’s expressways, even as the Bureau of Internal Revenue has put forward its estimates that the toll operators owe the government a total of P6.5 billion ($153.9 million) in unpaid VAT on toll from 2007 to 2009.
But when the TUTOL-SLEx attended what was supposedly a public hearing on toll fees, the group found out that the TRB “once again fell short of its responsibility to the people.” The group aired its disappointment with the supposed hearing as they found only the TRB executive director, Mr Manuel G. Imperial, and TRB spokesman, Mr. Julius Corpuz, acting as panel in the hearing.
“Where is the solicitor general who is supposed to be the legal defendant of the people? Where is the NEDA representative to monitor the economic impact of the taxes imposed on the people? Why is the Bureau of Internal Revenue representative considered a panelist when its main agenda is to defend taxation?” asked Malunes.
The transport group PISTON and TUTOL-SLEx have said that increasing the toll fees because of the VAT on the approved toll fees would result in: (1) higher costs for commuters and motorists plying the highways, (2) higher costs for people using the highways for their business, and therefore (3) increases in the prices of goods and services which pass through the highways.
To most Filipinos who are not getting a living wage, the added tax burden will hardly be welcome, said Malunes, adding that based on experience, the increased taxes have not resulted in increased provision of social services. George San Mateo, national secretary-general of PISTON, estimated that drivers would lose hundreds more of hard-earned take-home pay per long working day if the VAT is passed on to toll road users.
The taxpayers’ alliance reiterated its opposition to unjust toll fees, urging the government to first fully investigate the more than 100-percent bloating of the SLEx project cost, and to adjust the toll fees accordingly. The group also urged the government to disallow private companies and toll fee operators from passing on to road users its responsibility in paying taxes, which, they said, the TRB seems bent on doing in talking of adding another layer of imposition into the present “approved” toll fees.
As another toll fee hike looms, the TUTOL-SLEx reiterated the superiority of nationalized or publicly-owned and controlled tollways against a privately-controlled one that is not only mysteriously more costly to build and operate, but also passes on to users even the cost of taxes.