May 18, 2024

It was in the early ‘90s that trading vegetables was not easy in the highlands as the unpaved roads along the Halsema Highway are tough to navigate.

One of the vegetable suppliers, Samuel Cho, and wife, Apolonia, had to load vegetables from the mountain trail to La Trinidad, Benguet through a commercial jeepney they bought from the lowlands.

“But I noticed the step board of the jeep is always getting destroyed; because of the heavy load of vegetables, the step board is getting dragged on the road, and we cannot stop even if we hear it hit the floor when we are going up the rocky road,” Cho said.

An idea struck him to level up the jeepney’s body. With the help of a latero (tinsmith), he guided the person to customize the jeepney – overall lifting of the body and other modifications to make it more durable in the unforgiving roads of the mountains. He created a one-of-a-kind mountain jeepney. 

Soon, other vegetable traders and farmers noticed his ride: “Mayat (it’s good), nabaked (durable)” and offered to pay him to customize for them.

He asked them to canvass the commercial jeepneys made in the lowlands at the time: Armak, Lawin, Francisco, and Amante. Then he asked P20,000 more than the unit’s price for the work he would do. As he custom-built more jeepneys, more customers came to see him. 

And so, Charsam Motors was born.

Cho, whose father was a Chinese and with an Igorot mother from Kapangan, Benguet, led a team of people – a mechanic, an artist, a latero, and other workers who helped manufacture and customize jeeps fit for the highlands since 1994 in their workshop in Pico, La Trinidad.  

If you have been a commuter in Baguio and Benguet, chances are you have ridden in one of the more spacious and well-built jeepneys manufactured by Cho and his men. 

But Charsam Motors, and many other local jeepney manufacturers and stakeholders of the traditional transport industry, face an uncertain future with the implementation of the government’s Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP).

REHABILITATION, NOT PHASEOUT– Samuel Cho, owner of the local jeepney manufactu-ring shop, Charsam Motors in La Trinidad, Benguet, still gets requests from local jeepney drivers and operators to rehabilitate their traditional jeepneys even with the threat of phaseout by the government’s implementation of the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program that imposes the use of modern vehicles for public transportation to be at par with international standards. Due to opposition from jeepney drivers, operators and stakeholders of the industry, the Congress, and the Senate are now studying a more “humane” approach in modernizing the public transportation without the fear of displacement of many workers. — Ofelia Empian

The plan aims to transform public transport through the introduction of safer and climate-friendly vehicles, a better commuter-experience through improved regulation and industry consolidation.

Since the plan was launched in 2017, the Cordillera is one of the regions with the highest compliance rate in consolidation, which is the first step required for the PUVMP.

Data from the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board-Cordillera show the region has a compliance rate of 92.4 percent or 4,641 jeepney units out of the existing 5,022 number of authorized units have been consolidated.

These drivers and operators have been consolidated into 84 cooperatives and 24 corporations.

However, consolidation is just the first step towards the modernization program. There are other steps that need to be followed, which makes it a burden to the jeepney operators and drivers.

Burden to small jeepney operators

On Jan. 21, 2017, hundreds of jeepney drivers and operators marched down Session Road to protest the government’s order in phasing out jeepneys that are 15 years old, as part of the PUVMP. The drivers and operators belonged to 50 jeepney organizations in the city and other civil society organizations called the Baguio-Benguet Movement Against Jeepney Phaseout Alliance.

Mike Cabangon of the Kilusang Mayo Uno and lead convenor of the group, said the movement has sent position papers to the city council and the local government units in La Trinidad-Itogon-Sablan-Tuba-Tublay asking for their support to the plight of drivers and operators. 

In 2017, the city council approved Resolution 329 s. 2017 supporting the call of the coalition, provided operators and drivers shall make sure their units, especially if dilapidated, are in good running condition and road-worthy.

The city council also passed Resolution 457 s. 2017 informing Sen. Grace Poe, then chairperson of the Committee on Public Services, and Catanduanes Rep. Cesar Sarmiento, then chairperson on Transportation of the 17th Congress, about the plight of jeepney operators and drivers in the city and its stand in support of the coalition.

One of the points outlined in the resolution was the inability of jeepney drivers to earn and subsequently, pay for the daily boundary as the operators would need to increase the boundary to prepare for the cost of the new jeepney unit.

Despite this, the city government in 2020 started to implement plans in support of the modernization program as specified in Memorandum Circular (MC) 2018-010 or the Omnibus Franchising Guidelines (OFG).

Cabangon explained some of the city’ actions in support of the program are the relocation of some jeepney staging areas as part of the route rationalization plan followed by the signing of a memorandum of agreement between the city government and SquidPay for cashless transactions, which eventually did not prosper.

FUTURE OF TRADITIONAL JEEPNEY — With the introduction of foreign-designed modern jeepneys plying the local roads through the government’s Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program, traditional jeepney operators and local manufacturers such as Samuel Cho, owner of Charsam Motors, are appealing for the government to consider their plight through support mechanisms that would also help them be part of the program. Cho earlier presented his design of an upgraded traditional jeepney but the Department of Transportation and the Land Transportation Franchising Regulatory Board said the design needs more upgrades to be at par with the Philippine National Standard. — Ofelia Empian

At present, dozens of modernized jeepneys are also currently servicing passengers from different barangays in the city, which are also part of the modernization program.

Cabangon said these actions were petitioned by the coalition, adding the standards of the modernization program are high and was hastily imposed on the drivers and operators.

The modernization program requires individual franchise holders to consolidate and join cooperatives or incorporate themselves into collective juridical entities, which will supposedly enable them to acquire loans to help them afford the modern jeepneys.

Each cooperative must have at least 15 units, and the LTFRB will no longer allow single-unit operators on the road.

“Kinikilala nila na mayroong madi-displace pero hindi klaro kung saan mapupunta ang mga na-displace. Basta ang nakalagay na provision ay bahala na ang kawani ng gobyerno pero kung paano ay hindi nakasaad,” Cabangon said. 

The OFG details the social support programs for all displaced operators and drivers shall be discussed through the signing of memoranda of agreement between the Department of Transportation and its partner-agencies. 

More issues and challenges

Cabangon said the first modern vehicle tested in Baguio City was the e-jeep worth P1.3 million. But it was not viable with the city terrain, as the e-jeep malfunctioned during its testing.

The modern jeep that looks like a mini-bus worth P2.4 million was introduced. It takes seven years to pay the unit with a monthly amortization of about P37,000.

The modern jeeps now regularly ply Baguio-La Trinidad, Trancoville and Aurora Hill, and other routes in Baguio City wherein these routes have regular commuters, meaning these can generate more income as compared to other routes having only two or three trips a day. 

Cordillera Basic Sector Transport Cooperative (CBSTC) Chair Jude Wal said their drivers can generate about P8,000 a day in the Trancoville and Aurora Hill routes. 

But he said about 50 percent of their income goes to fuel. 

Wal, who led his cooperative to advocate the immediate implementation of the PUVMP in the Cordillera, has cited the need for consolidation to implement the fleet management system per organization, and the identification by the city government of the proper pick-and-go areas.

He said the processing of loans should be relaxed and streamlined due to the many requirements, if the government really wants to help the cooperatives. The mandatory infrastructures like garage, tools, and other startups should also be considered in the financing scheme, as the loan covers the modern vehicle only.

Wal said the government’s subsidy for cooperatives at only P160,000 per unit is not enough, adding the problem on red tape and corruption remain a struggle in the implementation of the PUVMP.

CBSTC has a total of 37 units and Wal said the cooperative is still in the testing phase of their modern vehicle units.

As of March 28, a total of 273 modern jeepneys are plying various routes in the Cordillera.

UPGRADED TRADITIONAL JEEPNEY — Jeepney operator and driver Moises Calsi, Jr. proudly shows his own designed jeep in partnership with Samuel Cho of Charsam Motors stating he has assisted in rehabilitating and upgrading the vehicle’s wiring and circuits such as putting an improved version of the “stop” button as well as putting a keyless lock in the jeepney. Calsi is confident that local manufacturers can create the needed modern jeep as long as the government could also help local producers. — Ofelia Empian

In the MPUJ Class 1 (that looks like L300 vans plying in the towns of Tublay and Buguias, and La Trinidad) are 90 units; the MPUJ Class 2 (the mini buses) are 133 units; MPUJ Class 3 (slightly bigger than mini buses due to its compartments) are 32 units; MUVE Class 3 are 18 units, which are modernized UV Express (plying San Carlos, Pangasinan to Baguio; Baguio to Tayug, Abra; some in Kalinga and in Bauko, Mountain Province). 

LTFRB-Cordillera Director Lalaine Sobremonte said the deadline for consolidation was extended six times considering the petitions of drivers and operators.

MC 2023-017 states that all provisional authority issued, which would supposedly end until March 31 would automatically be extended until Dec. 31 this year, without the need of these consolidated entities to file for extension.

“With this new deadline until December 31, the pronouncement of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and Transportation Sec. Jaime Bautista is to revisit the PUVMP and go into deeper planning to see what is best so we won’t keep on extending, saan nagkulang at saan magkukulang pa,” Sobremonte said.  

Upgraded traditional jeepney design

Cho expressed his disappointment over the modern vehicles currently plying the locality.  

“They said it is modernized jeepneys but those are not jeepneys, those are mini buses. They cannot even go up and down the mountains,” Cho said.

He said the imported modern vehicles might run in the lowlands, but with Cordillera’s terrain, the traditional jeepneys could still be the viable choice.

Cho said he went with former LTFRB-Cordillera Acting Chief Transportation Development Officer Robert Pocais to the LTFRB central office in 2018 and met with the agency executives and other local manufacturers. 

They left the meeting on a positive note, but Cho said the talking points during the meeting seem to have been forgotten and the supposed proposal was not endorsed to the subsequent administration.

Cho also tried presenting the same jeepney design, which is slightly bigger than the highland jeepneys, to the concerned agencies but to no avail.

“They told me that it is not what is written in the guidelines, and showed me the designs of those foreign vehicles and not the traditional jeepney,” he said.

Sobremonte, when asked whether local manufacturers can have a chance to present their designs for the modernization program, said the government is willing to accept designs from local manufacturers such as Charsam Motors on condition that it has to be within the Philippine National Standards (PNS).

The modernization program states that all jeepney engines should at least be Euro-4 and PNS-compliant engines or LPG-powered, electronic, and hybrid. A modernized jeepney should have a GPS (global positioning system), an automated fare collection system and a CCTV camera.

Cho said if the government requires Euro-4 engines, he is willing to do so as long as the government would also be willing to get the engines in bulk so local manufacturers could have supplies.  

Right now, he said they are using Japan surplus engines because they are proven to be sturdy. 

Sobremonte said the concerns of local manufacturers is also one of those to be studied by the LTFRB central office, such as streamlining the requirements for accreditation, providing subsidy or loans to be able to afford to manufacture the required modern jeepneys, among others.

But she explained it is not only about the engine and jeepney that is the component of the PUVMP, but also forming into a legal entity to implement fleet management and other systems that will overhaul the country’s transport system. 

That is why she said the LGUs are also involved in the creation of the Local Public Transport Route Plan (LPTRP), a detailed plan route network with specific modes of transportation and required number of units in a specific route.

Jeep, the iconic multi-use transportation

Cabangon fears that many industries will be affected if the traditional jeepneys are phased out in the coming years.

Moises Calsi, Jr., a driver-operator and a member of Batjoda Multipurpose Cooperative, said during his off days, he can use his traditional jeepney for private use. But with the PUVMP, he would have to give up his jeepney.

Calsi said with the jeepney, they could use it to ferry lumber, fertilizers, sacks of vegetables, cement, and other materials needed by the passengers, especially in the far-flung areas of the region. 

Jen Baltazar, operator of Agetyeng Tours, said the PUVMP is a good plan of the government for the long-term benefit of the environment and health of the public.

“However, I just wished there was a way to improve the carbon emissions of the traditional jeepneys instead, so we can still preserve one of our national icons,” Baltazar said.

She said instead of importing, there should be government support to equip local manufacturers with the necessary technology, skills and knowledge which will produce Filipino jeepneys that are at par with the international safety, emissions, and quality standard.

With Baltazar’s desire of promoting local manufacturers, she designed in 2015 her iconic Soligmay tourist jeepney, and tapped Charsam to customize it in 2018. It was launched in 2019 as part of the creative tours of Baguio City.

Participants of the tour will ride the 20-seater creative jeepney, which was modified so that the well-upholstered and spacious seats are facing forward, with six doors, giving tourists a comfortable ride.

“They are one of the most established jeepney manufacturers in the Cordillera. I also want to closely monitor its progress, so I had to choose a local manufacturer,” Baltazar said in deciding to work with Cho in her project jeep that leaves others in awe upon seeing.

As Charsam’s fame spread in the region, there are individuals who claim to have worked under Cho’s tutelage just to get clients.

Cho said he has always taken pride in his work.

“I don’t like work that is inferior; I take it seriously because the jeep would be used in the mountains, so I always demand quality work even with my workers, many of them have already parted with me and established their own backyard shops,” he said.

Hopeful dialogue with the government

Cabangon said the coalition is not against modernization, but emphasized the plan should include those from the industry, who have been reliant on the jeepney as their means of livelihood.

This was echoed by Cho, who said the modernization program is a welcome development, as it will improve public transportation. This is what led him to create Charsam in the first place, to improve the jeepney for safety and comfort of both the driver and passengers – him and his wife then – while negotiating the mountain trail.

Cabangon and Cho are hoping the Senate and Congress would continue to back the jeepney industry through legislation and actions.

They are banking on Senate Bill 105 filed by Poe or “An Act Providing for a just and humane PUV Modernization Program with transitory assistance and services rendered to PUV drivers, operators and stakeholders.”

Sobremonte said they are also gathering feedback from the stakeholders concerned to properly implement the modernization plan.

“The DOTr and LTFRB have a lot of work to do,” she said.

From 20 men, Cho now has fewer than five men working with him at the shop. He said the modernization program has confused the minds of jeepney drivers.

Though some are still hopeful and tapped Cho to upgrade their jeepneys, hoping the government would consider retaining the iconic jeep in its modernization plan.

Right now, he has one change body on the works, which would take him about five months to finish.  

While the jeepney is dubbed as an icon of the Philippines, it is an inescapable fact of life that it is the national mode of transportation for the daily Pinoy commuter, who is as resilient as the vehicle.   Cho, in his usual shirt, jeans, and slippers, quipped, “Habang may jeep, may buhay (as long as there’s jeep, there’s life).”