Not ready
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - October 30, 2020 - 12:00am

DOTr Sec Art Tugade had all the good intentions when he mandated the use of RFID in the expressways. If implemented properly, the cashless system will really help reduce the potential of COVID infections even as it speeds up the process of entering and exiting the expressways.

Indeed, this is something that should have been done long ago. Cashless toll collection is more efficient and secure. There was a time during the PNCC days when a syndicate (which included tellers) recycled toll tickets, causing a significant shortfall in collections.

Modern toll collection systems generally consist of a way to track the vehicle, some identification mechanism and a registration and billing system.

But because we have two major toll road operators, we should aim for just one cashless system for all expressways. Let the operators sort out how to account for their tolls.

The problem at the moment is the failure of the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB), a DOTr unit, to ascertain the readiness of the tollway operators to implement based on the deadline Sec Tugade initially set. We saw a mess of crowded registration centers, indicating they are not ready and the deadline had to be set back.

From the start I had my doubts. My experience with RFID is limited to the system they implemented in the condo complex where I reside. They required the installation of the RFID sticker on the windshield of our cars to be allowed entry to the compound and to the parking area.

It took them quite a while to make the RFID system work more or less smoothly. A wrongly placed sticker will not activate the barriers to allow entry or exit. We are only talking of cars approaching the barriers at a slow speed. I can imagine an expressway situation would be more complicated.

I recall that my kids in the US use a device the size of a cigarette pack, a hard case transponder which they put on the dashboard when using a toll road or bridge. They don’t even slow down. They can transfer it to whatever car they are using, unlike RFID which requires us to have one sticker per car.

But I understand they have also switched to the sticker type. The FastTrak website explains that “the new sticker transponders cost significantly less than the battery-operated hard-case transponder currently used to collect tolls electronically in the state.”

So, sticker it is. The problem at the moment is how to get millions of vehicles properly registered, stickers properly attached.

It also seems, the backroom of the operators needs a lot of improvement. They can’t get you into their system even a week after you have registered and paid. I wonder if topping up will be as complicated.

Without proper preparations, the good intention of reducing human contact in line with COVID prevention measures went down the drain. People had to crowd the centers where they could register and get their RFID stickers. The virus must have had a fiesta.

Sec Art had no choice but to extend the deadline again to the end of next month. His staff should learn to cover his back by making sure his orders can be carried out… no half-baked projects.

The start for the cashless toll collection is now Dec. 1 instead of Nov. 1. The TRB warns that there will be no more extensions. I don’t know… the way things go in this country, never say never.

There was also confusion about deadlines. One was a deadline for the tollway operators to be ready to implement the cashless system. The other date seems to be directed to motorists to have the RFID by that time to enter the tollways.

It appears SMC has worked the confusion to its advantage, by allowing motorists to transition to cashless transactions for another 28 days. MPTC, on the other hand, announced a “No RFID, No Entry” policy by Nov. 2. Tugade saved the day for them by allowing motorists to transition to cashless transactions until Nov.  30.

The crowd of frantic registrants shows a state of unreadiness. No one really knows if the backrooms of the operators are up to the challenge. This is one area that the TRB should look into.

We are talking of computer systems. Rushing implementation of such systems to handle a lot more than the usual load is a recipe for disaster. It happens every time.

Don’t take the word of the toll operators about how good and ready their systems are. Get an independent assessment from a competent IT expert. Sec Tugade cannot be embarrassed another time when on Dec. 1 all hell breaks loose because the computers aren’t working as expected.

One other thing that Sec Art may want to look into is the matter of costs and deposits. Learning from the beep card fiasco with the buses, there may be complaints about the amount of money the operators will keep as interest-free deposits.

The viajeros using old jeepneys to bring in fruits, vegetables, fish and even live pigs may not be happy. Jeepney drivers in the open part of NLEX also live by the day.

There are no complaints now because compliance is still voluntary. There is a segment of the market that will probably think the required deposit is too much or unfair.

Make it easy to top up through a bank account or from other payment systems, preferably with real time effectivity. It is ridiculous and unfair to let users wait a week or even a day for the computer systems of the operators to recognize payments.

In California, FastTrak does not charge any monthly account maintenance fees. Tolls are deducted from a prepaid account or charged individually to a credit card. Prepaid accounts are eligible for discounted toll rates.

The good intention of Sec Art should be appreciated. But his underlings failed to make sure implementation is painless. Any public backlash negates the goodwill such a project should get.

 

 

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

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