MANILA-- Malacañang denied on Thursday that the government is taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to push the jeepney modernization program, saying it has long been in the works.
Traditional jeepney drivers have decried the ban on their vehicles as lockdowns since March have left them with no income for more than 3 months.
"Ang modernisasyon ay hindi tinaon sa panahon ng pandemya. Wala nga pong nakakita sa kanilang crystal ball na magkakaroon tayo ng ganitong pandemya," Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said in a Palace press briefing.
(The modernization was not timed with the pandemic. No one saw that there will be this kind of pandemic.)
Roque added that the jeepney modernization program has been in the pipeline since 2016.
Modern jeepneys were allowed to operate anew on Monday, with some 300 units plying 15 different routes in Metro Manila after the government let more types of commuter vehicles operate.
Traditional jeepneys, however, are the last option in terms of public transport based on the government's system, which prioritizes buses and train lines.
"Kung kulang po talaga ang masasakyan kinokonsidera na po ang pagbibiyahe ng mga traditional jeeps basta sila po ay road-worthy," Roque said.
(If public vehicles are not enough, we are considering allowing traditional jeepneys to operate as long as these are road-worthy.)
"Susundin pa rin natin 'yung hierarchy of transportation pero kung kulang po talaga ay hahayaan ang mga pampublikong jeepney," he added.
(We will follow the hierarchy of transportation but if it will not be enough, we will allow the traditional jeepneys.)
Roque also addressed the threat of a group of jeepney operators that they would set their vehicles on fire if routes of traditional jeepneys are given to the modern ones already in operation.
"Hindi namin tinatanggal sa mga tsuper ang kalayaan magpahayag ngunit maaari tayong magpahayag ng di nananakot po," Roque said.
(We are not removing the drivers' right to freedom of expression but they can do it without sowing fear.)
"Ang kapakanan ng commuter ang aming iniisip, hindi ito usapin ng mayaman o mahirap," he added.
(We are thinking about the welfare of commuters. This is not an issue of being rich or poor.)
The government has cited difficulties in implementing minimum health standards in justifying the prohibition on traditional jeepneys, where passengers sit face to face.
Some jeepney drivers have resorted to begging for money due to lost income while others have shifted to working as delivery services.
On Wednesday, Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board Chair Martin Delgra said UV Express vans and traditional jeepneys will be allowed to operate as public transport vehicles next week.