Tollway nightmare

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 9, 2020 - 12:00am

The traffic gridlocks are gone at the Valenzuela exit of the North Luzon Expressway. This was after the Valenzuela City government suspended the business permit of the NLEX operator, following the chaos at the tollgates with the full implementation of cashless payments starting Dec. 1.

A furious Valenzuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian personally served the suspension order on Metro Pacific Tollways Corp. (MPTC), making sure that the bars would not be lowered and vehicles could pass through for free.

Toll collection continues at the other NLEX exits.

Listening to the statements of the parties involved, I can’t see any short-term win-win solution to this mess. The mayor at least got the immediate result that he wanted: to get traffic moving.

The Gatchalians, however, are also into various businesses, and surely understand the impact of the toll holiday on the NLEX operator. The mayor has stressed that the suspension will be lifted as soon as the MPTC has submitted a satisfactory plan to end the gridlocks.

Gatchalian has decried the RFID system as “primitive.”

MPTC senior vice president for communications Romulo Quimbo, speaking with “The Chiefs” Monday night on OneNews, described the chaos as “birth pains.” The Toll Regulatory Board (TRB), which has also incurred Gatchalian’s ire for the mess, gave the same description.

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Quimbo would not say that the sensors were overwhelmed by the surge in users of the radio frequency identification system. The RFID, which is also used in places such as India, Turkey, Taiwan and several South American countries, has a read rate efficiency of about 98 percent, he says, which is within global standards for cashless toll collection.

The efficiency, however, also depends on proper use by motorists. For example, Quimbo says there could be glitches if the RFID sticker or tag is placed on windshields with heavy tint.

At the toll gates, distancing must also be observed. Motorists can’t tailgate; the sensor needs to pause in between vehicles. That’s why there are large signs stating where a vehicle must pause while waiting for the one ahead to drive past the raised bar.

Most importantly, the RFID needs sufficient load. Quimbo indicated that insufficient load has been among the common problems that led to the toll bars failing to go up and letting vehicles pass through. Once a vehicle gets stuck, with a long line of others behind it bumper-to-bumper, it can no longer back up to get out of the way.

These rules should be drummed into every RFID user as soon as the tag is placed on the vehicle. An extensive information campaign on user responsibility would have helped.

I’ve been using two types of RFID tags for years, and I learned these rules only through trial and error. (It’s welcome news, by the way, that MPTC and San Miguel Corp. are working on the interoperability of their RFID tags.)

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The full cashless transaction was ordered by the Department of Transportation to prevent COVID transmission at the toll gates. While full cashless transaction could be good for toll operators, I don’t know if anyone in the DOTr or the TRB bothered to find out the process of procuring RFID stickers, and the capability of the operators to handle the applications of millions of motorists over the timeframe provided.

The RFID tag is needed not only by motorists in the National Capital Region, but also those from all over Luzon who use the tollways regularly for the movement of goods and people to and from the NCR.

Even if the RFID tag is free, it needs to be loaded regularly, so the system needs information about the vehicle and registered user. The process, from the registration to installation of the sticker, took me about 15 to 20 minutes. It can’t be done online. Multiply that by the millions, and you will understand why the lines have been kilometers long.

Since the shift ASAP was ordered in the middle of COVID quarantines, there was reluctance on the part of people to wait in line to get the RFID tag.

It would be interesting to find out how many people contracted COVID while waiting in those long, snaking lines for the installation of their RFID sticker.

And then, it seems like there were people who thought the free sticker came with a free load. The result was Carmageddon at the tollgates.

Maybe such problems are impossible to imagine for officials while playing mah-jongg in posh gated villages.

Infrawatch PH convenor Terry Ridon describes the toll holiday as “populist pandering” and says the cashless toll collection was forced on the public and tollway operators without preliminary studies or a comprehensive plan for proper implementation within a reasonable timeframe.

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So what’s the next step?

At this point, with many vehicles still without RFID tags, the tollways may have to return to the hybrid system, with a lane or two dedicated to cash payments.

The problem is that the existence of the option may make people think it will always be there, and refuse to get the RFID sticker.

It actually makes sense to permanently have such an option – for motorists who don’t regularly use the tollways. But it can be a problem if too many motorists prefer to pay cash rather than go cashless.

This controversy is also a good time to review the policy on toll roads. They are fine for long-distance expressways outside congested urban centers. But why do we have so many toll roads within Mega Manila, where the road network is so limited? The stiff toll rates discourage the use of the roads and defeat their avowed purpose of traffic decongestion.

Isn’t the provision of quality roads a basic service that the government must provide for free to taxpayers?

And when will we stop paying toll on the portion of what used to be called the South Superhighway, built half a century ago by the Construction and Development Corp. of the Philippines? The CDCP, owned by Marcos crony Rodolfo Cuenca, was given only a 30-year franchise to operate its tollways.

We pay corporate and income taxes apart from the Road User’s Tax. Yet we have to pay toll for the maintenance of even a four-kilometer road linking SLEX to Daang Hari at the Las Piñas-Cavite border.

And now, with our vehicles bearing RFID tags that are supposed to pave the way for a seamless drive, we’re stewing in traffic jams at the tollgates.

There are fears that the problem at the tollways may still be around even after the COVID vaccine is here.

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