Tugade apologizes; Duterte tells TRB head to quit
Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade passed the blame on the failure of the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB – primary regulator of toll operations in the country – to smoothly implement the cashless payment program along expressways.
Geremy Pintolo, file

Tugade apologizes; Duterte tells TRB head to quit

Cecille Suerte Felipe (The Philippine Star) - December 18, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade yesterday apologized to the public for the traffic jams and inconvenience of using the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) as the cashless transactions on toll expressways are being implemented.

Tugade passed the blame on the failure of the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB – primary regulator of toll operations in the country – to smoothly implement the cashless payment program along expressways.

“Madam Chair, I apologize for the inconvenience and discomfort due to the various problems in our tollways. I was thankful for the Senate hearing and we were able to spell out what was happening on the tollway. I apologize to the people, especially those who (were inconvenienced), including Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian. I’m sorry. We will look at ways to improve the situation,” he said during a virtual public hearing of the Senate committee on public services chaired by Sen. Grace Poe.

During a live briefing Wednesday night, Tugade also apologized to the affected local government units, saying the problems were not intended and could be considered as birthing pains. He promised to solve the issue in the coming days.

President Duterte said the other night that he could not accept the incompetence of toll operators as he urged the TRB officials to tender their resignation.

“Listen very carefully to all and sundry, I do not want you dead – becoming a deadwood. If you cannot perform what is expected of you, then the best that you can do for decency’s sake, resign, and do not wait to be fired because that’s more hurtful, you will be embarrassed. And the only reason perhaps – not perhaps – but the only reason people would believe what the cause was is because you are incompetent,” Duterte said in a taped speech on Wednesday night.

He added that he understood Valenzuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian’s decision to suspend the business permit and toll collection of NLEX within the city.

Gatchalian thanked the President for taking his side, one that he described as a validation of his position for a barrier-free tollway system.

In her opening statement yesterday, Poe said the TRB failed to collect toll fees amounting to almost P1 billion in 2017 and 2019.

“The TRB cannot escape blame. It seems to me that the TRB has been content to do two things and nothing else: raise toll rates and collect fees. Truth be told, the TRB can’t even do its job of collecting toll fees that well. According to the Commission on Audit, the TRB failed to collect toll fees in the amount of P44.24 million in 2017 and P859.94 million in 2019, almost a billion pesos,” Poe noted.

She added that the agency, just like the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) and Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), suffers from having a governing board dominated by ex-officio Cabinet secretaries with more important things to do.

“On the supply side, only 25 to 30 percent of frequent NLEX travelers were RFID (radio frequency identification) users in 2019. This is quite low compared to the usage rates of contactless toll systems in Asia: 90 percent in Japan, 75 percent in Taiwan, and 74.2 percent in South Korea. This ensured that there would be a sudden surge in the number of RFID users which should have been handled. In all, about three million vehicles in NCR did not have RFID before the cashless system was implemented,” Poe pointed out.

On the service side, she said there have been many complaints about the unreliability of NLEX toll gates but that the concessionaire did nothing. She cited a social media post that stated “the NLEX RFID was weak that motorists still need to focus and sometimes you will retreat and advance several times just to detect it.”

“I, myself have experienced that. Just a simple complaint in 2019, became a big problem in 2020 because it implemented a policy while the system was not ready,” Poe revealed.

“Indeed, some policies require urgent implementation – especially during a pandemic. However, requiring a shift to 100 percent cashless toll collection system in a matter of three or four months seems a little hasty and unrealistic,” she said.

Sen. Nancy Binay suggested that the TRB impose a set of standard of technology which the tollway management can use to ensure smooth operations after its officials admitted the absence of any standard at present.

Sen. Manny Pacquiao joined colleagues in the call for TRB to fix the problems as he said he would recommend the suspension of the implementation of cashless system on tollways and revert to the combined use of cash and RFID.

“Before we go fully cashless, we must fix the system. The primary purpose of cashless transactions is to hasten the flow of traffic in our tollgates, and that is what we want. That is the goal so that our motorists will not be inconvenienced. I call on tollway concessionaires Metro Pacific Tollways Corp. and San Miguel Corp. to balance the number of cash and RFID tollgates to ease the congestion along expressways. Let us address the problems related to the implementation of the cashless system without delay,” Pacquiao said.

Sen. Joel Villanueva noted that it is ironic for the RFID-based toll collection system making heavy traffic as the new normal in the expressways, thus adding a burden to motorists.

“It is time that we, as representatives of the people, look into how our regulators and concessionaires are working to ease the problems in our toll roads. We are also willing to work with them to find practicable and simple solutions to make our highways true expressways,” Villanueva said.

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian shared videos and photos that illustrated his “cha-cha” experience when his vehicle passed by the toll gates of NLEX.

“I just want to show these pictures. This is what’s happening due to poor performing RFID causing traffic jams in Valenzuela thoroughfares. Our goal is to find solutions and hold people into account—regulator and operator. If the regulator is functioning, we will not experience this situation,” Gatchalian said. – Christina Mendez, Marc Jayson Cayabyab

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