An urgent matter

HIDDEN AGENDA - The Philippine Star

Almost two weeks after that “unforgettable” 13-hour road trip from Manila to Baguio City, I’m back in the City of Pines minus the estimated one million tourists who joined me in making the city a huge parking lot during the last holiday.

I look back at that agonizing experience with a promise to myself that I will never, never go back to Baguio during a long weekend, or when there’s a public holiday. But I will be back, but always against the tide.

But not everyone who got out of that traffic alive is as forgiving.

Senate president Franklin Drilon said he would file a resolution calling for a Senate investigation into the monster traffic that plagued motorists who drove through three interconnected toll ways—North Luzon Expressway (NLEX), Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) and Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEX)—last Dec. 26 en route to Baguio.

The sheer number of motorists who took advantage of the low fuel price regime, the long holiday, all contributed to the monster traffic.

To address the unexpected volume surge, NLEX and SCTEX carried out quick fixes like opening spare lanes and counter flow lanes and deploying ambulant tellers. TPLEX did the same.

But imagine if motorists did not have to stop to get their tickets and pay the toll separately for these three tollroads.

According to Drilon, he can’t understand why the collection of toll fees can’t be integrated, so that only one entity handles the collection.

Interestingly, Arnel Casanova, who heads the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA), said this traffic nightmare would go away soon enough as the BCDA already approved last November an integration plan that would reduce the number of toll collection plazas in the three toll roads and thereby speed up vehicular traffic for both northbound and southbound motorists.

When asked why this integration plan was not carried out before the holidays, Casanova said they still need to build the new toll plazas and remove the existing ones.

Actually, BCDA put this integration plan in the freezer for over five years, considering that it was proposed by the Manila North Tollways Corp. (MNTC) as early as 2009.

According to MNTC president Rodrigo Franco,  in 2009, they submitted a proposal to integrate the two expressways and amended it this year to expedite the implementation of the project, but until now BCDA has yet to sign the integration agreement.

When MNTC parent Metro Pacific Tollways Development Corp. (MPTDC) submitted an unsolicited offer on Sept. 17, 2009 to manage, operate and maintain SCTEX, a key feature of its technical proposal was the operation of SCTEX and NLEX as “one integrated and contiguous expressway network.”

MNTC also committed under the agreement the integration of SCTEX with NLEX to ensure the “interoperability of the toll collection system” of both expressways.

This would be achieved by modifying the toll collection system of SCTEX through installation of devices and peripherals, reconfiguration and expansion of toll plazas, introduction of electronic toll system and software modification.

Then in March 2014, MNTC presented to BCDA the idea of advancing the implementation of the NLEX-SCTEX Integration as a way to ease the mounting traffic congestion in certain choke points along the NLEX and SCTEX, especially during peak seasons.

On April 8, 2014, MNTC formalized the proposal to advance the implementation of the Integration as a stand-alone project

The proposed Integration aims to provide motorists seamless travel from NLEX to SCTEX and vice versa; adopt a common transit ticket system that would make operations more efficient and enhance motorists’ convenience; and use the NLEX Electronic Toll Collection Dedicated Short Range Communication system or the EasyTrip TAG for SCTEX  to increase subscription and throughput capacity for both NLEX and SCTEX toll lanes.

Such integration would involve, among others, upgrading SCTEX’s collection system to make it compatible with that of NLEX, and removal of the NLEX Dau Toll Barrier, and SCTEX Mabalacat Toll Barrier plus the construction of smaller toll plazas at the Dau, Sta. Ines and Mabalacat entry and exit points.

But while the MNTC board has already approved the agreement, BCDA has yet to obtain internal approval for this project.

According to sources, even when SCTEX was still being built by BCDA, the MNTC already proposed as early as 2006 that SCTEX just “piggy back” on NLEX’s toll collection system so that both expressways, in using a unified collection system, would become “interoperable and seamless.” However, BCDA management at that time decided to have a separate toll collection system for SCTEX.

The concept behind this MNTC integration plan is for any Baguio-bound motorist to just pause at the NLEX to get a fee card (or slow down if his or her vehicle has an “Easy Trip” transponder), then drive non-stop through NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX until the Pangasinan or La Union exit where the driver stops briefly to pay the amount or let the car’s transponder do the paying for him or her.

Casanova claims, though, that this seamless solution to linkage hitches between and among these three Luzon tollways has been forwarded already to the Office of the President.

So has the OP again decided to look the other way? Has the BCDA really forwarded the matter to the OP?

It would be recalled that despite the approval of MNTC’s operation and maintenance (O&M) contract in 2009 for SCTEX by the past administration, the succeeding government deemed it fit to renegotiate the deal, leading to three renegotiations by BCDA and MNTC that culminated in 2013 with the latter’s submission of a much better offer to government.

Incidentally, MNTC’s sweetened O&M proposal feature a 50-50 revenue-sharing formula plus a cash component of P3.5 billion, comprising an upfront payment of P2.9 billion and P600 million more for SCTEX bridge repair work and for the NLEX-SCTEX integration.

Still, this was not good enough for them. BCDA suddenly announced in mid-November the holding of a price challenge or competitive bidding for the maintenance of SCTEX.

Worse for MNTC, BCDA suddenly came out with newspaper advertisements announcing the price challenge without first notifying MNTC, much less discuss with it the auction’s terms of reference (TOR), in gross violation of the BOA that both parties signed in 2011.

Let us hope that the integration agreement would not meet the same fate as the SCTEX O&M contract.

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