At the rate PIDCO is express building TPLEx, it was bound to happen. Last December, thirteen kms. of dual carriageway, toll free for the moment, were provisionally opened, connecting Carmen TPLEx toll plaza exit to the Agno river viaduct, and onward to the Urdaneta entry/exit at Anonas, MacArthur highway. With promises of reduced travel times to Northern destinations, like Manila-Baguio in 3 hours, cheaper gas and a chain of holidays at the peak of the long Christmas season, motorists and tourists piled on to the north tollways early in one of the wettest Christmas Eves we've had in a long time.
26 December 2014
By 26 December 2014, traffic reached unprecedented record breaking volumes. NLEx was clogged with 1.6 times more vehicles than the weekend average. SCTEx, handled 1.5 times more while TPLEx traffic tripled. Early in the day, paying queues at Dau NLEx northbound exit toll plaza were averaging 2 to 3 km in length. This queue is closely duplicated at the north bound Mabalacat SCTEx entry plaza. Over at Tarlac Central toll plaza which serves as SCTEx collection plaza and TPLEx ticketing/entry plaza, queues hardly ever got shorter than 2 kms. long for the whole duration of the day. Queue length and duration at the Carmen TPLEx temp plaza was at its worst at 7 to 8 kms long!
Onward on Manila north road/MacArthur Highway, the traffic crawl from Sison, Pangasinan to Rosario, La Union's Bued River Bridge reached 10 kms long, with the tailback, at one point, reaching Binalonan, barely 3kms. away from the TPLEx Anonas junction. Thus it was no surprise that LP stalwarts Sen. Pres. Drilon and DoTC Sec. Abaya took 11 hours to get to Baguio. Even regular weekenders from Tarlac were not spared. What used to take 2 hours from Tarlac to Baguio took 7 hours.
Planned in 2009
Such a scenario would have been averted if MNTC, toll operators of NLEx and SCTEx, had its way in 2009. Having worked hard to bid and win the BCDA's operation and maintenance contract for SCTEx, MNTC was ready to invest billions to integrate NLEx and SCTEx operations, making toll collection seamless. EC Tag/Easy Trip electronic toll collection was to be deployed on the SCTEx
while the NLEx Dau toll plaza and SCTEx Mabalacat toll plaza were to be decommissioned to reduce northbound travelers toll ticketing/payment stops from 4 to two, Balintawak or Mindanao Ave./La Paz northbound and La Paz/Bocaue southbound. Many interchanges would be reprofiled and additional exit toll stations for some interchanges were to be built. If only the Palace approved of MNTC's plans then, Sen. Drilon and thousands others wouldn't have to endure queueing several times at all the toll plazas along the way.
Still a Senate investigation on nation-wide toll operations is timely if only it exposes the TRB's 4 year delay in implementing contracted toll fee adjustments. Definitely another minus in attracting private sector investment in local infrastructure and PPP. But then, that is water under the bridge, and so was MNTC's integration plans. Like many things approved during the GMA era, the SCTEx contract was cancelled by the incoming Aquino administration. MNTC then further sweetened the financial conditions of the contract and again won the bid in 2011, as San Miguel's Infrastructure ambitions were still to take off with a series of mergers and acquisitions of existing tollway franchises and project construction. To this day, this contract has again been amended to require a price challenge to MNTC's winning bid. In a bid to be perceived as pro-active, BCDA, the owners of the SCTEx announced that the integration of toll collection was already approved in principle some months back, but the infrastructure for reprofiled on ramps, new toll stations and plazas needs time to construct.
TPLEx construction express, Macarthur bottlenecks
Meantime PIDCO and San Miguel Infrastructure's Rapid Thoroughfares Inc. accelerated construction pace of TPLEx overtook the DPWH's widening of the Urdaneta to Rosario section of the Macarthur Highway. With the last section of TPLEx from Urdaneta, Pangasinan to Rosario, La Union still a-building, the sooner arrival of traffic from the south, clogged Macarthur highway's northern Pangasinan section. The 10km long traffic jam from Sison to Bued bridge northbound approach, though rare, is symptomatic of what will happen in the future; all those vehicles, jostling on both the shoulder and carriageway squeezed into the entry of the Bued bridge. After the jumble at Rosario, another long queue forms at the solitary toll gate booth entering Kennon Road.
Reconsider the rest of TPLEx?
With these recent events, PIDCO should reconsider plans to build TPLEx's Urdaneta to Rosario from just single carriageway to dual carriageway standards. As you can see, the monster traffic jam in Pangasinan this Christmas season was another perfect storm waiting to happen. It would be a reasonable supposition for travelers this coming Holy Week and other long weekends to suffer similar traffic severity.
A Senate investigation would be some ways off, and the completion of TPLEx up to Rosario is still a year away. DPWH may consider deploying 2 temporary Bailey bridges on the Bued river bed, like the what they did some 5 years back when a span of the main bridge was washed away by a storm. But these Bailey bridges should only be used during the high tourist season, during the dry months, lest these be washed away during the stormy season. On the other hand, the PNP has strongly recommended that vehicles bound for points North of Rosario take the Binalonan to San Fabian route.
The Skyway-SLEx lead
Yet completion of the TPLEx to Rosario does not eliminate the multiple toll ticketing/paying queues which would total five times for a typical Manila to Baguio journey. What would be ideal is the Skyway-SLEx set up, where toll collection is integrated at Nichols Skyway and SLEx Calamba, though one wonders why SLEx Ayala and STAR Sto. Tomas toll plazas, along with E-PASS, haven't been integrated in this joint collection effort, since all three tollways are operated by San Miguel and its partners.
So in the meantime while all the delayed approvals and construction take time, the Baguio bound have the following alternate routes to consider:
NB [northbound]: To avoid the NLEx Dau and SCTEx Mabalacat toll plaza
Exit NLEx at Sindalen/Lakeshore/Mexico - drive east through the hamlet of San Jose Molino Barangay - reach the Magalang-Concepcion highway - turn left head North, memorize the landmarks here - skirt Magalang town proper - note possible foodie excursion next time: Larry Cruz's Abe's Farm on the right to bgy. Ayala- proceed towards Concepcion,Tarlac - enter SCTEx via Concepcion interchange toll plaza - head north. Trade off on bad days: minimum one hour combined queueing time for both Dau & Mabalacat toll plazas vs. 30 mins. easy driving via this diversion.
NB: To avoid the TPLEx Tarlac Central/Balincawanay toll plaza
Exit SCTEx at La Paz exit - head east on Tarlac-Santa Rosa road - spot the acute angle junction on the left to head for Victoria town - turn left to head north - when you enter Victoria town, turn left to head west to rejoin at TPLEx Victoria interchange toll plaza - head north. Trade off on bad days: 30 mins queueing time not including for La Paz to Victoria driving time vs. 30 mins. total of easy driving from SCTEx exit to TPLEx entry
NB:To avoid the TPLEx Urdaneta toll plaza and traffic at Urdaneta MacArthur highway
Exit TPLEx at Tomana, Rosales - head east into Rosales town - follow signs to Magilas Trail - turn left into Magilas trail - follow the signs pointing to Baguio through the Santa Maria bypass, Agno bridge, Asingan bypass into Binalonan - enter Binalonan poblacion - turn right in front of church to access Macarthur Highway going to Pozzorubio, Sison, Bued bridge to Rosario. Trade off on bad days: one hour combined queueing and driving time from TPLEx Urdaneta to Binalonan Macarthur highway vs. 40 mins. easy driving via diversion from TPLEx Tomana.
NB: To avoid the Binalonan or Sison to Bued bridge traffic queue
From Magilas trail - go through Binalonan town poblacion - continue west to cross MacArthur - follow road to Manaoag - go through Manaoag -head for Laoac - and before Mangaldan, you will reach San Jacinto - San Jacinto has a road junction that heads north to San Fabian - follow that junction by turning to the right - San Fabian is by Lingayen Gulf - follow the coastal highway - to reach Rosario - from Rosario town, you can follow the signs to Pugo that goes to Marcos Highway [one less toll gate for the trip] or continue east to go through Rosario to reach the traffic triangle that channels traffic to Kennon Road. Trade off on bad days: One and a half hours driving time including 3 km long stop /go crawl [minimum] at Bued bridge approach on the Macarthur route vs. One and half to 2 hours easy driving time through the scenic sea side San Fabian coastal highway.
For the Manila return trip:
SB [Southbound] : To avoid the Rosario, Bued Bridge to Binalonan jam, do the reverse - from Rosario-San Fabian-San Jacinto-Laoac-Manaoag-Binalonan. Then choose to turn right to access TPLEx Urdaneta via MacArthur or go straight through MacArthur junction to Binalonan poblacion to access Magilas Trail, then on to TPLEx via the Tomana/Rosales interchange
SB: To avoid the Tarlac Central TPLEx toll plaza, exit at TPLEx Victoria, drive to Victoria town, then head for SCTEx La Paz toll station entry.
SB: To avoid SCTEx Mabalacat exit and NLEx Dau entry, exit at SCTEx Concepcion, drive south to Magalang, and then turn right on the the feeder road that passes by the San Jose Molino barangay hall to Sindalen, then join NLEx via the interchange.
SB : To avoid the huge traffic jams that occur at the giant NLEx Bocaue toll plaza - exit at Sta. Rita- follow Daang Maharlika through Tabang, then MacArhtur highway through Bocaue, then reenter NLEx via Marilao. Even late at night, these roads keep busy with trucks but traffic flows at a steady rate. Being MacArthur highway, expect PUJ traffic and built-up areas to partially obscure signs that point to NLEx access roads. The access roads themselves are still rural in appearance and width, though quite built-up too, especially the one that leads to Marilao NLEx junction. Taking this diversion through Macarthur will take a leisurely 40mins. Which is still better than 40 mins of queueing.
First aid, band aid
Though 3 hours or 4 hours Manila-Baguio remains a pipe dream, one can still avoid traffic armageddon during Holy Week 2015 and all other long weekends for the rest of the year by taking diversions to avoid the toll plazas along the route. These diversions are best studied on the map or in-car navigation before hand. And being unfamiliar, these diversions should be best taken when there is still daylight. Though well paved and not so heavily trafficked, these diversions may not have fuel, rest room and food stop preference that one is familiar with. So its best to avail of one's fuel, restroom and food needs before taking such diversions. Lastly, these diversions will surely add more to the odometer, but travelled miles, specially through the "road less travelled", is infinitely preferable to getting stuck crawling bumper to tailpipe for hours, several times a trip.