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Editorial

Yet another mess

/ 05:07 AM December 10, 2020

So bad has the situation become at the North Luzon Expressway (NLEx) that last Monday, Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian personally served the notice of suspension of business permit on NLEX Corp., thus prohibiting the builder-concessionaire and operator of the expressway from collecting fees at the toll plazas within the city.

Gatchalian was driven to take the drastic measure by what he called the operator’s “miserable failure” to meet the city’s ultimatum to address longstanding issues hounding its “abysmal” RFID (radio frequency ID) cashless toll collection system, which has worsened the already dreadful traffic around the toll gates, exacting a heavy toll on people’s time, health, and money.Traffic near the interchanges became unbearable following the Dec. 1 deadline set by the Department of Transportation for the toll operators to implement electronic toll collection and the compulsory use of RFID to ensure 100-percent cashless or contactless transactions to lessen human contact and prevent COVID-19 infections.

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NLEX Corp. has acknowledged the “technical problems” with its system and assured Gatchalian it was “working on resolving those problems” and that traffic congestion was “going to improve” in the succeeding days

A firsthand account of the chaos at the expressway was provided by Inquirer columnist Randy David in his Dec. 6 column, where he detailed the travails of securing not just one but two different RFID stickers for the tollway systems operated by separate companies — Metro Pacific Tollways Corp. (MPTC) for EasyTrip and San Miguel Corp. Tollways for AutoSweep—and the consequences of having RFID antennas unable to consistently pick up or read the signal from RFID stickers on motorists’ vehicles.

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The switch to the RFID cashless payment system “had not been thoroughly thought out,” David concluded; the system bore the marks of “ceaseless improvisation” even if both tollway operators have been using the RFID for years.

The toll operators’ blatant shortcomings prompted Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, brother of the furious Gatchalian of Valenzuela City, to formally ask the Senate last Monday to review the minimum performance standards compliance of toll operators as stipulated in their concession agreements with the government.

Should the toll operators, which are part of some of the country’s largest conglomerates, fail or come up short of the minimum performance standards, they stand to lose their lucrative contracts with the government to operate these toll roads. Aside from the South Luzon Expressway, SMC operates the Metro Manila Skyway system, Naia Expressway, Star Tollway, and the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway. Metro Pacific Investments Corp. through MPTC, on the other hand, operates NLEx, the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway, Cavite Expressway, and Cavite-Laguna Expressway.

For the vice chair of the Senate economic affairs committee, also to blame is the Toll Regulatory Board, for “failing to lift a finger” in the wake of numerous complaints about the anarchy caused by the shift to the cashless system at the expressways. Gatchalian called for the resignations of the top officials of the TRB for their “utter display of callousness to the plight of the motorists who, because of technical glitches and apparent inaction of concerned authorities, get stuck in traffic for hours.”

The policy to immediately shift to cashless toll collection may have been doomed to fail from the beginning, according to InfraWatch Philippines convenor Terry Ridon, because of the lack of a comprehensive study and an implementation plan, as indicated by the repeated extension of the deadlines—first November, then December, then now to Jan. 11.

“The fact is clear: This was forced down on the public and toll operators only in August without preliminary studies, without a comprehensive implementation plan,” said Ridon. “The several extensions of full implementation should give us all a sense of how knee-jerk this entire program has been.”

Even the new time frame may not be enough: Senators Grace Poe and Nancy Binay, SMC president Ramon S. Ang, and Speaker Lord Allan Velasco are recommending the further extension of the deadline. Binay wants it extended to at least until February 2021, while Velasco has appealed to the DOTr for an even longer extension to March 2021, pointing out that it was impossible to install the RFID stickers on over six million registered vehicles in the National Capital Region, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon by next month, and also since the pandemic has prevented many vehicle owners from leaving their homes to secure the stickers.

However the mess may be resolved, the logjam of vehicles at the toll booths is yet another glaring instance of mediocre governance — the latest infuriating demonstration of, as David described it, “a pervasive culture of thoughtless disregard for the welfare of ordinary citizens.”

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TAGS: Editorial, NLEx traffic jams, RFID, Sherwin Gatchalian, toll regulatory board, TRB
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