At long last
Totaling 4.0kms long, the MCX – Muntinlupa-Cavite eXpressway – barely makes it from SLEX Muntinlupa to Las Pinas, Metro Manila but at a projected 25,000 vehicles a day, its going to be one very busy expressway from Day 1. The need for what was known before as the Daang Hari Link highway, was evidenced by years of long traffic queues at Commerce Avenue, Ayala Alabang, since SLEX-Skyway traffic headed for the Villar and Filinvest residential communities along Daang Hari had no other route. Incidentally, 25,000 vehicles a day is a local rule of thumb for the minimum traffic needed to justify dual carriageway tollways, a numerical hurdle the SCTEx hit only on Year 3 of its existence.
As the first road infrastructure PPP project of the Pnoy administration, MCX has had a rather tortured past. As early as 2009, during the GMA administration, Daang Hari expressway was already being built by a DPWH approved contractor within the New Bilibid Prison reservation. Then, in 2010, the Pnoy administration took over the project, and allowed it to continue as the first PPP infrastructure project.
Awarded to Ayala Corp. in 2011, pundits tongues were wagging that Ayala overpaid by more than a 100% over the 2nd placed Citra Metro Manila Skyway bid. What wasn't clear to all PPP bidders then was that the government had already changed the parameters of the BOT rules to conform to the new PPP paradigm. From hereon, PPP projects were to have a financial component, over and above the cost of construction to government specifications. This financial component amounts to a franchise or premium for the right to operate the concession. It doesn't translate to any additions to the physical plant.
Franchise premium or highway robbery?
Lately this “franchise premium” has been bubbling to enormous sums. NAIA Expressway 2's franchise costs almost as much as the 10B it would cost to construct it. Metro Pacific tollways are paying 25B worth of franchise over the 35B cost to build CALAx. Proof of this arbitrary administration's consuming belief in this franchise, is when it ordered a re-bid of CALAx when San Miguel's defective bid, with a 20B franchise, lost to Ayala-Aboitiz's winning franchise of 11B. The bias for this franchise premium is true for the giant potable water projects. The Laguna Lake Dike Expressway PPP franchise may yet top them all.
'Dead ma' to contract obligations
Esteemed economist, Dr. Raul FABELLA has come out against this inflated franchise premium as not only is it prohibitive to foreign infrastructure investors – PPP's in the UK and Europe do not charge such horrendous franchise premiums – but it also means that this inflated cost can only be recovered by charging higher toll fees. Which leads to the further disincentive complication of a government, like the arbitrary and populist Pnoy administration, which does not abide by the BOT contract obligations by disregarding mandated toll fee increases as triggered by agreed on parameters. What ever happened to the original DPWH or NEDA guideline that BOT tollways feasibility be guided by the lowest possible projected toll fee?
This was not the only complication. Having had bare cupboards for future highway plans at the DPWH, the rushed plans for Daang Hari failed to take into account the new allowance for 10-lane or 5x5 plus shoulder carriageways of the SLEX as revitalized by MTD, the Malaysian conglomerate. This also complicated the tunnel for the north bound on ramp from Daang Hari to Skyway. Further complications to the plans were how to minimize the disruption to the SLEX Susana Heights exit as the Daang Hari interchange had to integrate some traffic flows with the widening of the Madrigal overpass.
Ayala's MDC history
As for construction nous, Ayala's MDC or Makati Development Corp., took in Pertconsult and Getinsa, a Spanish firm better known for building infrastructure projects rather than operating tollways. MDC is no stranger to public infrastructure having reformatted the Nielsen airfield into today's Makati CBD, Buendia Avenue from Forbes Park and the Alabang-Zapote road in the 70s, when Ayala's Forbes Park country-resort living community concept reached into Alabang.
Delays to Daang Hari, later called MCX, were caused by the addition of RFID readers to the E-PASS toll gates as San Miguel South Tollways started adopting RFID tags. And there was the protest by the Villar group against Ayala's plans to build a retail strip at the rotunda end of MCX, right across Villar's Evia complex. All of this stretched the completion of the 4.0km long expressway to 4 years.
Just before launch, one could tell that MCX PR handlers were still new to the game even as MCX is still a work in progress. The Facebook page trickled information on how the exit and entries were to function. The maps and diagrams for traffic flow at the Daang Hari rotunda and the MCX-Susana interchange were not clear. MCX would have done well to consult the PR's of Ayala car companies – Isuzu, Honda, Volkswagen -as their media practitioners are excellent in dealing with the prickliest of all motorists – the motoring journalists.
Physically, lighting masts, if LED luminaries, were not yet complete and the toll plaza lacked the stadium style illumination that is common nowadays even on Ayala and SM car parks. This illumination is critical if the anti-overloading law is to be enforced for laden trucks. We await if tunnel illumination would also be sufficient. Signs were incomplete and it would do well to study the SLEX-MATES signs as they are the model for clarity, color visibility, font size, kerning/spacing and luminosity. The arrangement and size of traffic wedges and directional arrows at the rotunda were not intuitive to motorists too. Also RFID tags haven't smoothly acclimatized to MCX so far, but E-PASS works smoothly from Day 1.
Slope protection was still in need of burlap and gabion screens. There was some debris on the shoulder. Unlike TPLEx and SCTEx and like the STAR when it was new, MCX doesn't have asphaltic concrete as the final paving surface. It remains to be seen if the road markings are reflective at night and would still be visible under standing rain water. It also seems that some signs and electronic variable message boards are undersized and are better located for instant visibility on overhead gantries rather than masts on the side of the road considering the width of highway and the rotunda carriageway. There's nothing much one can do with the widths of the on/off ramps to SLEX as space is really tight, but better road markings and more aggressive or obtrusive road barriers should be able to guide traffic better, discourage overtaking and maintain the posted ramp speeds of 40km/h.
Of particular concern is the lane reduction from 2 to one upon exiting the Skyway bound on ramp – again, more aggressive cat's eyes and rumble strips should obligate motorists to merge and queue single file before filtering into SLEX traffic. Another possible merge conflict is at the combined MCX-SLEX Calamba on ramp, SLEX Susana Heights off ramp and MCX-Susana heights off ramp. This 3-in-one merge point should have solid barriers than just mere road markings as there could be drivers who would jump from the innermost lane [MCX to Susana off ramp] to the SLEX on ramp by mistake.
DPWH spec and a Greek example
On the plus side, MCX follows DPWH specifications for carriageway width. Overpasses and central reservation medians have clearance to allow widening to 4x4 with shoulder in the future. This is unlike the BCDA's Japanese JICA spec width for SCTEx which is strictly 2x2 carriageway or 3x3 at the most, with a narrow shoulder. TPLEx's flyovers are even maxxed out at a narrower 2x2 carriageway with shoulder owing to its overpasses that eliminated the central pillar. MCX have also adopted NLEx practice of deploying “incident” trucks; these are PPV [pick up platform vehicles] with superstructures that carry road emergency and high visibility traffic paraphernalia behind its roll up shutter rear doors. They even come with red/white slash reflective panels and in the primrose yellow color, better applied by “foil-a-car” than paint respray, inspired by the livery of Greece's tollway vehicles. We await to see if patrol vehicles, be it crew cabs or sedans, will bear the same livery.
Beyond MCX to Cavite
Though we are not aware of any plans, the sensible extension to Cavite of MCX will take the form of an elevated road from MCX toll plaza, rising above the rotunda. When it returns to at-grade, it may integrate the existing Daang Hari Road, building interchangesand toll booths for the Villar residential communities, then proceeding, elevated again, to congested Molino, then Aguinaldo Highway and beyond to link up with CALAx as CALAx routes its way to connect with CAVITEx Kawit. What this will do to the current toll free road and the area's popularity for leisure cyclists any day of the week, we can only speculate. One thing for sure is that if electronic toll collection [ETC] isn't mandated by law by then, MCX will have the CALAx end enabled for EasyDrive and EasyTrip while the SLEX end keeps RFID and, hopefully, E-PASS.
The AGIP-Autogrill example
As for Ayala's retail plans, there is an old Swiss-Italian concept that hasn't been tried here. Since there is resistance to Ayala retail space from the Villar group, which seems to control most of the residential properties along Daang Hari, Ayala can study the AGIP-Autogrill mixed use elevated building that one sees on some Swiss autobahnen and Italian autostradae. These consist of an overpass kind of building that crosses over the highway. Both ends of the building have PWD [disabled] friendly elevators, escalators and ramps.
The building is swathed in panoramic glass with traffic passing underneath. The building has an espresso-snack bar, cafeteria, regional specialty food [if Cavite: oysters and crushed iced with mixed diced fruits or “halo-halo”], infant changing rooms, pay booth hot showers with lockers, comfort rooms, and mini marts with regional specialties and tourist trinkets for sale. Since alcohol is served, there are free breathalyzers at the ends of the overpass building. At both ground level ends of the “Autogrill” are full service gas stations [Pilipinas Shell is an Ayala affiliate] with plenty of coach, bus and UV express parking. Located where there are stupendous views of the hilly country or the distant Manila Bay sunset closer to CALAx, it can even become a destination in itself for the weekend cyclists if it has access to the known cycle paths.
Popular with weekend travelers
This AutoGrill concept, owned some time ago by the Benetton family, works very well for long haul trips like Italian motorists who come back to their city homes after a Sunday tour out of town or after seeing provincial relations. To head off making dinner at their urban homes and avoid heavy traffic reentering the city, Italian families have their Sunday repast at these Autogrill complexes while they wait and watch for traffic to thin out before heading home later in the evening. Highway sited Autogrills also circumvent strict Swiss laws that keep all inner city businesses closed on Sundays. Truckers on long haul journeys make good use of the showers before they take a nap in their idling juggernauts or take a quickie espresso doppio to stay awake behind the wheel.
Cavite marches forward
The possibilities are endless, as the province of Cavite will soon have the most extensive network of expressways in the country in a long time to come. An extension of the MCX, the CAVITEx to C5 connection and the soon to be built CALAx are only the beginning.