Senators, watchdog slam 'thoughtless' EDSA bus card payment system

Several senators and an advocacy group criticized the implementation of a policy that limited the payment of fares on the EDSA Busway to the use of cashless Beep cards that required an upfront charge of P180.

The Department of Transportation (DOTr) began implementing a "no Beep card, no ride" policy on the EDSA Busway on Thursday, October 1.

Commuters complained about the P80 cost of the card and the P100 worth of credits they had no choice but to purchase along with the card.

Senator Francis Pangilinan called the policy "thoughtless," noting how many laborers were forced to walk to and from work instead of taking the bus because they could not afford the Beep cards.

"Iyong iba sa ating manggagawa, arawan ang sweldo at walang ekstrang pera. Ipinangungutang pa ang pamasahe dahil talagang walang-wala, tapos pipilitin pa silang bumili ng Beep card at mag-iwan ng maintaining balance para magamit ang card. Ano ba naman 'yan?" Pangilinan said in a statement on Friday, October 2.

(Some of our workers earn daily wages and do not have extra cash. They even borrow money for fares because they are broke, and then we force them to buy a Beep card and leave a maintaining balance to use the card? What on earth is that?)

'Just a small blip'

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said the government or the private issuer, AF Payments, could "easily afford" to give commuters the Beep cards for free.

At P80 per card, Recto said it would only cost the government P40 million to give it for free to 500,000 commuters – the daily bus ridership on EDSA, the main thoroughfare of Metro Manila.

P40 million is only one-fifth of 1% of the P20.71 billion the DOTr voluntarily cut from its 2020 budget and 2019 extended budget to hand over to the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Government is readying billions of pesos to help distressed corporations owned by the rich. The cost of a subsidized Beep card for the poor is just a small blip on the spending radar," Recto said in a statement on Friday.

Still, Recto said it would be better if AF Payments itself just issued the cards for free – at least until the end of the year or the end of the pandemic – as a "CSR" or corporate social responsibility effort.

Senator Sonny Angara lauded efforts to implement cashless payment on public transport but "challenged the DOTr to push the envelope further" by making the system more affordable to commuters already feeling the economic crunch brought on by the pandemic.

In a statement, Angara noted how commuters were "furious" over the P180 they were forced to pay for a Beep card.

Pangilinan and Senator Nancy Binay pointed out that the P65 balance Beep card owners are required to maintain is too steep for many commuters. During a Senate committee hearing on the DOTr's proposed 2021 budget, Binay urged Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade to have this maintaining balance waived.

Infrawatch PH: 'Ang kapal ng mukha'

Terry Ridon, convenor of the group Infrawatch PH, called on Tugade to halt the implementation of the contactless card payment modes on the EDSA Busway system until these concerns are resolved.

"The Beep cards were foisted on the public a mere 3 days before its October implementation. At P180 outright cash-out, this is equivalent to 32% of Metro Manila's minimum wage, and 8 days of roundtrip transport costs – without transaction costs and minimum balance requirements. Worse, the new system allows only one round trip before needing to top-up, as P65 is reserved as maintaining balance. This is nothing but a cash-grab during a pandemic. Ang kapal ng mukha (The nerve)," Ridon said in a statement.

Senator Grace Poe noted how commuters had to queue up to buy Beep cards, which may increase risks of viral transmission. Also, there is a parallel card system for e-jeepneys called Beep Rides, she pointed out.

Poe asked Tugade at the Senate hearing if it is possible to top-up the cards online, and can both cards be used on all modes of public transport to make it easier for commuters.

"Hindi ko ho maintindihan 'yan. Dapat ho, ang card use po, ang akin pong hangad ay libre, lalo't higit na maglo-load ka. Hindi ka naman kukuha ng card kung 'di ka maglo-load, kaya kung maglo-load ka, dapat wala nang bayad ang card," Tugade replied.

(I don't understand that. I aim for the card use to be free, especially since you will top-up. You won't get a card if you're not going to top-up, so if you're going to top-up, the card should be free of charge.)

Tugade said he would push to make these transport payment cards free, and expand their use into more modes of transport "as time and technology will allow."

Eventually, the use of cards should give way to QR codes on commuters' smartphones, Tugade added.

AF Payments: 'Zero profit'

Addressing these concerns, Beep operator AF Payments, a joint venture of the Ayala and First Pacific groups, said it gets "zero profit" from the P80 cost of each Beep card.

In a statement on Friday, AF Payments said the Beep cards were "still partially subsidized, as the full cost upon turnover to the buyer is more than P80." It even reduced the cost of the Beep cards during the initial phase of the system from August 1 to September 30, the company added.

AF Payments said it waived monthly service fees during the first few months of Beep card operations on EDSA buses to help out operators adversely affected by low ridership owing to the pandemic.

AF Payments added that it does not impose a "minimum load" on Beep card owners, but they have to ensure there are enough funds on the card for their intended route. A DOTr official told the Senate panel that the lowest fare in the system is P56, and a passenger's card must have at least this much credit to be allowed to board.

The company said it is "working closely" with the DOTr and public transport operators "for the continuous improvement" of the cashless payment system on the EDSA Busway. –

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.