The Gift of Time

2020 has brought us a lot of bad news with painful consistency. So much so that the simple act of flipping a desk calendar to 2021 was just a huge relief.

But that wasn't the only bit of good news that closed off the year, particularly for motorists in Metro Manila. There was another: the opening of Skyway Stage 3.

After several years of construction as part of the aggressive Build! Build! Build! program, San Miguel Corporation (SMC) and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) announced that Skyway Stage 3 is now open to the public, and in time for the tail end of the holidays. And for the first month, there will be no tolls collected. For those curious, Stage 3 uses AutoSweep as it is part of the Skyway system operated by SMC.

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SMC's Ramon S. Ang did promise to open Skyway Stage 3 before the Christmas rush, but a slew of unfortunate events just made it impossible. Early last year, a fire gutted and caused the collapse of a section over Pandacan. Work was also stopped for two months due to the ECQ. If those weren't enough, a series of late storms (including Typhoon Ulysses) made conditions unsafe to work and lengthened the curing times of the concrete and asphalt. The fact that Skyway Stage 3 opened at all in time for New Year was nothing short of a miracle.

The reason behind the Skyway is simple: it adds an elevated C-road to Metro Manila.

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If you look at a map of the roads in Metro Manila, you'll notice it looks like half of a spider's web with the center being in the City of Manila... specifically Rizal Park/Luneta. That's also why there is a Kilometer Zero (KM 0) marker there across the huge flagpole.

Back to the map: it may look disorganized (and in many ways, it is) but the major roads are really organized and categorized as R and C which stand for radial and circumferential. The Radial roads spread outward from the center towards the provinces. There are 10 of these and are made up of multiple streets, avenues, boulevards, and highways. If you're looking at the map, R-1 is the southbound side of Roxas Boulevard, and the numbering fans out in a counterclockwise pattern until R-10 which is Mel Lopez Boulevard heading north.

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As for circumferential roads, there are 6, and these go around KM 0 in a semi-circular pattern. As the C number increases, the further it is away from KM 0, and the longer it is. So basically, C-1 is like a little half-moon composed of Recto, Legarda, and other roads. C-6, on the other hand, is the circumferential road farthest away from KM 0. 

The critical ones are really C-4 (particularly EDSA) and C-5. Apart from traversing most of the cities in Metro Manila, both these wide circumferential roads provide a vital link between the expressways in the north and south of the NCR. If these roads are jammed, then basically only a few other roads will move because the major radial roads feed them.

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The numbers are telling; in August 2019, EDSA was averaging over 400,000 vehicles of all types every day. Of course, it's less with the pandemic restrictions, but that's the number they were already looking at in 2019. If there's a major accident at a vulnerable area on EDSA (say, in one of the tight underpasses) then the intensity of traffic goes up. If the rain is heavy and there's flooding in some areas, traffic goes up. If there's a three-day sale at SM Megamall, traffic goes up. And with lanes being reallocated for the new EDSA Busway, it can get more difficult.

That's where the Skyway Stage 3 comes in. It will serve as an alternative (albeit a premium one once toll fees are charged) to EDSA and even C-5. Actually, Skyway Stage 3 somewhat mimics C-3, and will directly link SLEX/Skyway in Makati and NLEX in Balintawak, Quezon City. After the traffic of the holiday season, I decided to try it out just for fun on New Year's Day.

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There are a few ways to get onto the new Skyway Stage 3. If you're on the original Skyway headed northbound, just keep going past Buendia off-ramp and you're basically on it. If you're coming from SLEX or Makati CBD (from Buendia), turn right after the PNR track and just keep right; you'll see the rather easy-to-miss northbound on-ramp.

If you're headed southbound and you're coming from NLEX, just keep to the far right after the northbound Balintawak toll plaza and you'll see the on-ramp there. If you're coming from Quezon City and going south, the entry point is near the intersection of G. Araneta and Quezon Avenue past the Sanctuarium. SMC says the Plaza Dilao southbound ramp is already open, but we thought we'd try it later on.

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For the drive, I opted to go all the way to EDSA, go around the EDSA cloverleaf to A. Bonifacio, find my way to G. Araneta, and up to the Skyway. In all honestly, that was a mistake. The roads down there had been severely damaged by the many trucks that ply it on a daily basis, and the car I had wasn't suitable for a road that is practically more like terrain than pavement. Here's a clue: it has a red H on the grille, on the steering wheel, and on the trunk.

Still, I kept at it, followed, and finally found the entry point at the Sanctuarium. Once the car was up on the Skyway, the difference was huge. As we jokingly put it, we had just come from the third world, and right now we were driving in the first.

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The asphalt was super smooth, and the turns are gentle as Stage 3 (or should we say Skyway 3?) weaved around the cities. There are times the Skyway gets stacked up as the road splits and turns into a double-decker; the northbound side goes up top with the southbound side on the bottom much like you would see in places like Japan.

The new Skyway will take you on a tour of Metro Manila, banking around the many buildings, malls, and other structures around the area. It looks really nice at night with the Makati skyline to your left (if you're headed southbound) and it looks unusually breathtaking during the day too; I actually drove again the next day and both ways.

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But don't get too distracted though, as you have to keep in mind that this is still an active construction site; the soft opening status means there is quite a bit of debris (i.e. pebbles, gravel, etc) and some plastic bollards all along the length of the road. There are also some steel plates covering some incomplete portions of the road like expansion joints. While they don't seem to be actively checking and apprehending speed violations (to the best of our knowledge), it's best you just keep it at the posted 60 km/h speed limit.

I took the Buendia exit and checked my time; yes, I had been timing myself, and it took me just 12 minutes from Quezon Avenue to Buendia. I couldn't really believe it, so I turned around under the old Buendia flyover and did it again. And even when you're just keeping at a leisurely 60 km/h, Makati to Quezon City really was done in 12 minutes. When I drove it again the next day from Buendia to Balintawak, it took just 20 minutes; and that's already with the traffic factored in at the toll plaza as the staff had to manually raise the booms to let motorists pass because they're not charging any toll.

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In a few more weeks, SMC and the DPWH will start opening more of Skyway 3's exits and entry points, but as of now, the 18.83 kilometers of the Skyway 3 is already usable, albeit on a limited basis. The grand opening is scheduled for January 14, the last time we checked. Honestly, we can't wait.

Some would think that Skyway 3 will only benefit those that will have to take this road on a daily basis; like if you work and/or live in places like Makati CBD, Alabang, Manila, Sta. Mesa, Quezon City, San Juan, Mandaluyong, and the like. That is true; case in point, one of my perennially late younger editors was already in the office at 9:00 AM today when I sent my customary “Good Morning, Boys” in our group message board.

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Here's the thing though: even if you don't need to drive on this road you will feel the positive impact this will have. The government estimates that Skyway 3 can take over 50,000 vehicles away from EDSA. That's a potential 12.5% improvement already and could also improve traffic from other at-grade roads that would normally be heavily affected by traffic. Of course, there will be increased traffic (potentially) in areas near and around the entry and exit points, but hopefully, that will be minimized so long as the RFID is effective. And this one will use AutoSweep.

Skyway 3 is just one part of a grander solution to help alleviate traffic in the metropolis. There is actually another elevated road that is being constructed: the NLEX-SLEX Connector road. Unlike the Skyway, this is by Metro Pacific.

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Crucially, however, this is meant more for a different kind of traffic: this is a truck-rated elevated expressway that is designed to hook up with the NLEX Harbor Link. That means trucks coming from the south that need to access the Port of Manila can just get onto the NLEX-SLEX Connector and get onto NLEX Harbor Link. And guess what: there will be no truck ban on this expressway.

The DPWH says this can take another 35,000 vehicles away from the at-grade roads every day. More importantly, many of those vehicles will be trucks; this will definitely alleviate traffic on the already congested streets, and greatly improve traffic on C-5 which is currently the main road for trucks that need to get from north to south and vice versa. They're targeting an opening date in December 2021, and will likely use EasyTrip RFID once completed. We just hope EasyTrip's issues have been resolved by then. 

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Skyway 3 is just one part of a wider solution, it just so happens to be the first major one that is almost complete. Together with the upcoming NLEX-SLEX Connector, projects in early stages like SMC's PAREX (Pasig River Expressway, an elevated east-west road over the waterway), the proposed Manila Bay bridge near Corregidor, and other critical road rehabilitation works and extra railway lines, things are finally looking better. Judging by the general Metro Manila traffic for the first two working days of 2021, we can already feel some of the improvements.

Of course, the Skyway Stage 3 is still free, and once they do charge then we'll get a better picture of what the effects will be. Nevertheless, the time has come for change for land transport and travel in Metro Manila, and hopefully, when more of these solutions go online, that's exactly what we'll get.