MOBILITY AND connectivity are, in this day and age, part of basic human needs. The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), by definition, provides these public services that directly impact the quotidian wellbeing of practically every citizen. Unfortunately, the DOTC has been sticking out like a sore thumb in an administration generally regarded as a marked improvement over previous dispensations. It’s commonly considered among the worst-performing departments of the executive branch, becoming the object of public ire and odium, deepened still by the “tanim-bala” scandal. Its performance is pivotal, not only for the people’s immediate and short-term needs, but also for the country’s long-run economic growth and social inclusion. But several of the public-private partnership projects under its wing have been moving in fits and starts due to apparent inefficiency and indecision.

With the LTO (Land Transportation Office) satellite licensing offices in the malls discontinued, I was constrained to go last Nov. 16 to its main office on East Avenue in Quezon City to renew my driver’s license, as was a large crowd of applicants, all corralled in a relatively small room. By way of consolation there was a special lane for seniors, so that what would have taken “hapless” nonseniors around half a day for processing took only about two hours. Nevertheless, no one was spared from the sweltering heat in that sweatbox as the air-conditioners were not working.

The experience immediately raised a number of questions. One, why were the more expeditious and client-friendly satellite offices abruptly halted with no well-publicized announcement? Instead, what was reported in the major dailies was the option for applicants to renew their license for five years (from only three), but which, according to attending personnel, had yet to be implemented. Two, with the tons of license fees collected, how is it possible that the LTO can’t afford to have working air-conditioners? And three, why can’t the LTO have enough license cards to supply all its customers for the day? The cards ran out by late morning, and the attending staff just cavalierly announced that those without cards will have to come back on the next working day. Not an isolated case, it seems, because just a week later my research associate had the same experience in LTO Marikina.

Curiously, the insufficiency of LTO supplies is not confined to driver’s licenses; it applies as well to the renewal of vehicle registration, for which old license plates were supposed to have been replaced starting two years ago. However, after having paid P450 for new plates per car, and having had vehicle re-registration for the third time this year, I’m told that replacement plates remain unavailable (including the long-overdue simple renewal stickers)!

Another issue has to do with smoke emission testing regularly timed with a vehicle’s annual registration renewal (Inquirer, 7/10/15). But these tests carried out by LTO-authorized private outfits appear to be a mere charade; otherwise, there ought to be less—not more—vehicle pollution in urban areas. It’s common knowledge that one can get emission clearance by merely paying the fee sans actual testing. And the testing fee has escalated from P100 a few years back to P550. One can only surmise that these wily entrepreneurs (perhaps in cahoots with LTO insiders) are making a killing from what can only be a scam, at the expense of vehicle owners and our fragile environment.

I mentioned this issue to the DOTC chief on June 30, 2013, when I met him briefly in Tagbilaran City at the inauguration of Bohol’s reelected governor. His response, to the effect that emission testing had been privatized and he couldn’t do anything about it, was extremely disappointing. It merely reflected the seeming weakness and ineptitude of the DOTC leadership, exemplified further by the worsening ills and chaos that have befallen our cities, Metro Manila being the prime example. Consider, for instance, the now-legendary malaise that marks public transport (e.g., the ramshackle MRT/LRT) and air and sea conveyances, resulting in punishing inconvenience and discomfort—and even tragedy—to the riding public.

Another relevant experience is worth narrating. In a span of about a year and eight months, I had been stranded twice—once unable to depart from Tagbilaran and once unable to fly from the Manila airport into Tagbilaran—owing to a disabled aircraft on the runway. The problem had been occurring several times in the past three years or so, causing major inconveniences especially to foreign tourists who had to miss inter-airline connections and were left to their own devices for accommodation and transfers (Inquirer, 1/20/14). To ease the burden on travelers, the DOTC should require local airlines to make rebooking simpler and bear the costs of accommodations, local transfers and inter-airline connections.

The solution to the Tagbilaran airport problem was to build a parking apron for disabled aircraft, which was finally done just this month. But although a simple and inexpensive move, it took the DOTC’s Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines such a long time to bring it about. Meanwhile, so much tourism revenue has been foregone, not to mention the longer-term turnoff from “more fun in the Philippines.”

Lately, it was utterly cynical for the DOTC chief to describe the public transport malaise as “not tragic” and the “tanim-bala” incidents a tiny percentage of the total number of travelers. And it’s a major letdown that our President hasn’t revamped the DOTC, and just continues to expect the public to grin and bear it.

Ernesto M. Pernia is professor emeritus of economics, University of the Philippines, and former lead economist, Asian Development Bank.