Pity the private motorist
Pity the private motorist. Tricycle, PUJ, PUB, Truckers, even security guards - they all have their special interest groups, lobbies and party list representatives, a strong voice and advocate for their needs to Legislature, Executive and Judicial alike. How about the private motorist? So how about us, a large majority of vote rich and a net income tax paying bulwark, the middle class backbone of the Economy. Do we have a voice? No one. Yes, there are the occasional rants of congressmen whenever a horrific accident, monumental traffic jam, nuisance lemon, impassable road or another instance of LTO incompetence hits the headlines, but no individual lawmaker, much less party-list consistently cares for the needs of this untapped and yet unrepresented power bloc.
Flash of hope
But once in a rare while there are flashes of hope. In the last Congress, Congressman Jack Enrile, in collaboration with Cong. Mark Cojuangco, prodded by the rapidly expanding mileage of the national expressway system, sponsored a bill to raise the national speed limit to 120 or 130, in keeping with international practice. The latter recently threw in his wise advice for a cheaper and faster route for the last leg of TPLEX in his Pangasinan constituency. And for his part, Cong. Enrile sponsored a bill mandating interoperability of all kinds of ETC [Electronic Toll Collection] in all our tollways.
E-PASS withdrawal syndrome
Recently, E-PASS holders, regular motorists on the Skyway-SLEX portion, were at a loss when SOMCO ceased selling Kapsch E-PASS transponders or so-called OBUs [on board units]. The initial lack of any formal explanatory announcement as to why and when E PASS will be available from Capstone- the E Pass company or San Miguel Infrastructure's South Tollway Systems - SOMCO's supremo - befuddled many E Pass loyalists. Anxiety about monster traffic jams at toll plazas with the loss of easy toll plaza payment triggered an appeal to TRB to expedite, at least, a return to normalcy of ETC [Electronic Toll Collections] on the mission critical South.
South traffic volumes, going North
Of the South's average daily commuter count of 250,000 daily vehicle trips, there are 150,000 registered E-PASS holders, who, on the average use their E PASS for a second registered vehicle, easily topping 275,000 possible vehicle trips [unofficial estimate in 2011 when Stage 2 opened] that have access to the wonders of E-PASS. Sure, there have been balance reconciliation problems and some delays in updating, part of E-PASS's growing pains, but upgrading has been a work in progress.
E-CARD, the RFID passive tag/sticker
With the recent roll out of Citra-Metro Manila Tollway's E-Card and RFID [Radio Frequency IDentification] stickers, the future of E-PASS was more or less, sealed. Free for the first 200,000 OR/CR vehicle registration presenters at SOMCO Bicutan or MATES Cabuyao offices, the sale cost for either windshield or headlamp lens sticker is 200 Pesos for vehicle registration no. 200,001 and beyond. RFID stickers are "passive" tags so they are so much cheaper than RFID "active" tags that are like the battery powered E-PASS transponders/OBUs/tags. E-CARD Account holders can have as many stickers as cars, so long as the cars are "stickered" at the E-CARD offices. So far, the RFID stickers work like E-PASS and to forestall any snags, personnel are ready at all RFID toll barriers to assist RFID antenna related reading errors which denies raising the gate barrier.
Six month trial, plus more
In actuality, both Skyway and SLEX have already had RFID lanes on trial 6 months before May 2015. The RFID technology is by Vendeka, a Turkish toll road conglomerate and stickers are by 3M. Vendeka calls its RFID a hybrid system as it piggy backs on the E-PASS system in mimicking the characteristics of E-PASS tolling on entry/exit. E-PASS is a DSRC [Dedicated Short Range Communication] system, which belongs to the RFID family. RFID uses UHF 868-956Hz frequencies lower than the Microwave [2.45-5.9GHz] frequencies used by DSRC; 5.8GHz for the EU and 5.9 GHz for Asia.
RFID, with or without batteries
RFID was invented for military applications to identify friend or foe. It's first successful commercial application were battery powered info-laden tags/OBUs/transponders embedded in roving livestock or packages on cargo pallets transiting via UPS or FEDEX sorting conveyors. Passive RFID stickers are relatively new and CAVITEX's EasyDrive RFID, launched more than a year ago, was the first application of RFID for road tolling. RFID is the common platform for the US toll roads while DSRC is the standard for the European Union and all of Asia.
Land of the Freeway
Even in the land of the Interstate Freeway, RFID's find wide application; E-ZPass [14 Northeastern states], Sun-Pass [Florida], FasTrak [California], TxTag [Texas], QuickPass, [North Carolina], I-Pass [Illinois] and New Jersey Turnpike. Many of these ETC's are interoperable; i.e. you can use your E-ZPass through Sun-Pass territory and vice versa. Many toll bridges and tunnels also use RFID tags, both active and passive. Dubai and Taiwan have the latest RFID "multi-lane free flow" version where stopping at toll plazas are replaced by multi-lane gantries with antenna readers that can read tags even when the vehicle passes through at 185km/h.
US road tolling though is different from Asian and European Union practice. The US is predominantly "open" tolling or distance based tolling. Tolls are paid over a set distance covered. Toll state highways in the Northeastern US have toll barriers every 20 miles or so, and in the old days, used to cost just a quarter per toll barrier. Exit or enter anywhere in between the toll barriers, you won't need to encounter any toll booth nor pay more toll. Over here, open tolling applies to the Balintawak/Mindanao/Karuhatan to Bocaue segment of NLEX, Tipo-SFEx, CAVITEX and the oldest toll road in the country, Kennon Road. Exit or enter anywhere and you pay a flat rate toll.
A vast majority of our toll roads - SLEX, STAR, Skyway, SCTEX, TPLEX, NLEX - are "closed" system tolling; i.e. you pay toll depending on your entry and exit point. Hence, toll plazas are located at all entry and exit points. Since our toll roads are in keeping with European and Asian practice, DSRC is most appropriate for us. EU ETC interoperability is spreading quite fast so the EU isn't considering any migration to RFID as its DSRC system is advanced already and EU countries are loathe to incur additional costs.
When the SLEX was being rehabilitated by the Malaysian MTD conglomerate, there were proposals to introduce the Malaysian style Tap n' Go "smart" toll card. This is similar to the E-TAP card that started at CAVITEX, which incidentally began as a Malaysian highway project during the Ramos era. In 2005, the newly opened NLEX offered similar pre-paid smart cards for fleet managers. The problem with smart cards was that transaction time was as slow as manual exact change payment. Hence MATES, the SLEX manager, opted to stay with E-PASS.
San Miguel's take
Introducing RFID to Skyway-SLEX intended to lower the cost and hence the barrier to entry into the convenient world of toll payment by ETC. With cheap passive stickers, San Miguel foresees that 80% of future traffic will be paying by ETC. On the other hand, Capstone's E-PASS was a trailblazer and as a first mover, it educated the public that the transponder's sunk-in cost is worth the convenience of having a transferable means of stop-less toll payment. It has already come to a point that whether Premid or Kapsch, the cost of the OBU/transponder wasn't such a big consumer hurdle.
The wait is over
With the 6 month trial period over, SOMCO and MATES are now confident that even if the RFID system hasn't stabilized 100%, E-PASS can be phased out by December this year. At the points of stickering, there are the usual application forms and promises that the E-PASS balance can be transferred to the E-CARD RFID account upon surrender of the E PASS tag. San Miguel Infrastructure and Vendeka can actually claim a world first since its hybrid system mimics DSRC in a closed tolling system. Normally DSRC can do anything RFID can do in both closed and open tolling systems but RFID only works in open systems.
Traffic bottlenecks of the future
Eventually, with cross-Metro expressway projects like the on-going Skyways Stage 3 and soon, the NLEX Metro Link expwy, notwithstanding EDSA's slow descent into a grinding halt, the city will be able to "drain" traffic faster out into the countryside, so much so that the next traffic bottlenecks will be at the toll plazas, as every long weekend exodus/reentry shows. Real estate in urban areas is so pricey that mega toll plazas like Bocaue and Balintawak at NLEX and Nichols at SLEX raises infra costs. The only alternative to huge swathes of real estate to accommodate long toll paying queues lie in ETC.
ETC need not be exclusive
With so many competing private tollway builders and operators, and so many ETC systems - E-PASS by Capstone, EasyTrip by Egis, CAVITEX's E-TAP and RFID EasyDrive, and CMMT's RFID E-CARD sticker for Skyway SLEX - TRB should take its cue from US and EU practice. This early, TRB should be more pro-active role in requiring interoperability between all these ETC's and whatever more modern ETC technology to come. It would be unfair to the consumer that tollway operators demand exclusivity to only one ETC platform.
No doubt it is wiser, traffic and consumer wise, to have all kinds of ETC systems operate in all tollways. Ayala, the latest entrant into the tollways industry, has invested in E-PASS and RFID readers at Daang Hari expressway. Tollways passage by ETC should be like the TelCo's interconnection, whether by 3G, 4G or LTE. Regardless if Globe, Smart, Sun, Talk n' Text and WiTribe, all can talk to each other and piggy back on each others network, for a fee. The tollway model should be like CAVITEX, which has E-TAP smart cards, EasyDrive passive RFID sticker and soon, EasyTrip DSRC active OBU/tags. This means that NLEX EasyTrip tag holders will be able to use their EasyTrip tags on NLEX, CAVITEX and SCTEX. Of all the ETC's, E-PASS, being the pioneer DSRC based ETC, has an advantage even if San Miguel is phasing it out of South Tollways System by year end. Being DSRC, E-PASS holders can use their balances and also their sunk in cost or investment in the OBUs/transponders by using them through CAVITEX, NLEX and SCTEX - IF E PASS applies for interoperability with EasyTrip. Considering tollway operator rivalry, it is not likely that EasyTrip will be reciprocated on the South Tollways System, but if Metro Tollways accepts E-PASS at its tollways, it will be the industry's first truly interoperable ETC, just like what Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Greece enjoy.
This is a golden opportunity for the TRB to alleviate future traffic and also to set a governing template so that future tollway operations are not balkanized with exclusive toll collection systems for each and every tollway, considering that some day soon, all these tollways will be connected to each other. At its launch years ago, Edmund Reyes, TRB Chairman, praised the introduction of the cheap E Tap card for CAVITEX as it makes express toll payment accessible to a wider audience. But TRB of late, like MWSS, DoTC, LTO, to name a few, has been behaving anti-private business like. It has consistently failed to act on contract obligated movements in toll pricing. These delays in toll hike, compromise the expansion plans of all the expressways in the country.
San Miguel may like its subsidiaries pliant and vertically integrated as a legitimate business style. It's consistent in its decision to have CMMT's E-CARD passive RFID supplant E-PASS active DSRC tags as supplied by CAPSTONE. Today, the 6 month grace period for E-PASS also serves as a standby back up system in case the RFID system doesn't stabilize by year's end.
What are the alternatives if RFID doesn't stabilize? San Miguel will not indefinitely bear the cost of having back up manual intervention staff and remote scanners at RFID toll gates. That would defeat the cost savings that ETC was supposed to imbue toll road operators. But if the Vendeka RFID hybrid system doesn't stabilize leading to errors and failed collections, San Miguel may opt to do what Taiwan did.
The Taiwan experience
Taiwan has 1,054 kms of toll expressways, with 171 interchanges, 22 major toll plazas and 136 ETC dedicated lanes. From 2006, ETC was by infrared OBU [DSRC transponders]. Then it decided to shift to RFID passive stickers for ETC and multilane free flow toll collection. This meant also making a shift from closed tolling - toll based on entry/exit - to open tolling, US style, based on flat rate tolling by distance. Though the sticker cost to the motorist was negligible, the investment in all RFID technology was huge. Besides reconfiguring the cash payment lanes at all exits, it had to set up 319 multi lane toll collection gantries, in between exits per interchange. By 2014, the tollway system had 1,246 ETC lanes. The free flow was great for relieving traffic and encouraging even greater use of ETC, but replacing the entire DSRC closed system with an RFID open system came at a great cost. RFID may be consumer friendly but a wholesale change to it has a steep cost.
The practical choice
Barring that huge expense to keep committed to passive RFID, San Miguel has another alternative, less costly than the Taiwan experience. That is to retain the E-PASS DSRC system, saving the sunk in cost of current E-PASS holders. In fact, it would be friendlier to the consumer if he/she was offered options - E-CARD RFID sticker as standard product, transferable E-PASS tag as a premium product, since both RFID and DSRC readers do not conflict at the toll gates. Actually, having an E-PASS and RFID stickers in one's family fleet is the best of both worlds, however short lived E-PASS is bound to be. There's plenty of room in the future for an RFID active tag anyway, once stability is achieved.
Payments clearing mechanism
Supposing that business conglomerate rivalry isn't an issue, the technical hurdle to interoperability is the need for a payments clearing house, akin to the way the Phil. Clearing House clears cheques of hundreds of banks. Barring that, and some updating of access fees and software, it is not inconceivable that E-PASS and EasyTrip DSRC active tags whizz through the same ETC lanes from SLEX-Skyway 1,2, 3 to NLEX metro link connector, SCTEX and TPLEX. When CALAx comes on stream, CAVITEX will soon be linked into this alphabet soup of connected tollways.
In aid of legislation
To hurry interoperability along, we may need the helping hand of the Legislature. It is unfortunate that Cong. Enrile's bill requiring universal ETC interoperability is languishing in Legislative limbo. Lately, the crisis caused by the LTO "no registration/no travel" policy prodded Senators JV Ejercito and A. Cayetano to take up the cudgels for the neglected private motorist. Its a good start. Perhaps the two senators need to get stuck in long toll plaza queues, like Sen. Drilon and Sec. Abaya last Christmas, to prompt them to focus, in aid of legislation, on speeding up ETC interoperability and investigate why the TRB, ironically the national agency in charge of expressways, treats most matters tollway in a non-express manner. Senate investigation, threat or real, anyone?