Since late 2013, North bound travelers have all marveled and enjoyed the partially opened TPLEX. By Holy Week, TPLEX proponent - PIDC and San Miguel Infra - promises to open full dual carriageways all the way up to Rosales, Pangasinan. Well and good but there is a down side. Every weekend, the SCTEX temporary toll plaza at San Miguel, Tarlac is always overwhelmed leading to long queues. Imagine how bad this will be come Holy Week and 'SumVac' season.
Stuck in 'Dead ma'
A permanent solution to this problem is not forthcoming soon even if the Palace acted yesterday. As early as 2009, BCDA, the owners of the SCTEX and Metro Pacific Tollways, the interim O&M contractors already had plans to improve SCTEX with major interchange and toll plaza reconfigurations in anticipation to the increased traffic TPLEX's opening will generate. Those plans included upgrading of the Pasig-Potrero viaduct earth fill approaches to bridge spans to avoid, the storm damage that Typhoon Maring wrought to the viaduct in August last year. This damage resulted in traffic funneled to a temporary Bailey span in this scenic stretch but any further improvement waits until the Palace decides on approving and implementing the O&M contract with Metro Pacific Tollways, overdue since 2009.
The beauty of this O&M contract is that since Metro Pacific Tollways also owns MNTC - Manila North Tollways Corp., O&M of NLEx - it can and will integrate the SCTEX with the NLEx whereby NLEx income will help pay for BCDA's loan amortization due to JICA, the Japanese agency that financed building the SCTEX. Moreover, the NLEx Dau toll plaza and SCTEX Mabalacat toll plaza will be decommissioned while the SCTEX will finally benefit from ETC [electronic toll collection] by Easy Trip. Think of it like the way Skyway and SLEx are integrated where there is no need to install a toll plaza at Alabang Viaduct to define the limits of each toll way franchise zone. A motorist entering Skyway Nichols is billed the entire length of the two expressways at SLEx Calamba toll plaza while a motorist entering SLEx Calamba, exiting Skyway Nichols is billed likewise.
Oodles of hurdles
To Metro Pac's misfortune, the waning GMA administration deferred approval of the SCTEX O&M contract in 2009. When the Aquino Administration took over in 2010, it, consistent with its treatment of all contracts signed by government since the Ramos era, cancelled the SCTEX contract. Then it had it bided out again whereby the only qualifying bidder was none other than Metro Pacific Tollways again. Thus the contract was awarded again to Metro Pacific Tollways. Attempts to misrepresent the SCTEX O&M contract as a PPP faded as there were, at that time, no qualified takers.
Enter the white knight, a.k.a. 'idol'
At around the same time, PIDC, the construction consortium building the TPLEX needed tollway O&M experience to qualify. SMC Infra's investment served as PIDC's white knight, coming in with much needed finance to accelerate building the TPLEX and also weighing in with O&M credentials after having acquired operating control of Skyway, SLEx and STAR.
More 'Dead ma'
From 2010 to 2013, the Palace parried the SCTEX contract to the DoF, who negotiated for better commercial terms while it continued to bleed paying for the JICA loan. Metro Pacific responded by sweetening the terms of the 30 year contract three times over and by early 2013, DoF endorsed the contract to the Palace. Where it has slept ever since.
Swiss Challenge, define transparency
Now the Palace is making noises about subjecting the SCTEX contract, essentially an awarded contract, to a Swiss Challenge. This essentially means that this contract, already won by Metro Pacific is open to another bidding. By the administration's own definition, the Swiss Challenge is only valid if the project is an unsolicited proposal. In the case of the SCTEX, its not even a proposal but a contract awarded by BCDA to Metro Pac. The SCTEX O&M is not even a PPP where the Swiss Challenge, by some imaginative stretch of the PPP terms, can be applied, but not without dissent.
Playing favorites, persecuting prejudice
The Palace's inaction and its recent addition of a new hurdle looks whimsical and at worse, downright prejudiced or even suspicious. The Palace can claim 'transparency' as the cause to subject the contract to a Swiss Challenge. But why? Was the BCDA awarding of the contract to Metro Pacific in 2010 not transparent? What is transparent to some wagging tongues is that the three year limbo of the contract afforded some other tollway investor to gobble up existing tollway O&M's to now gain the O&M expertise to allow it to qualify. But the bidding was over in 2010. So what gives? If the Palace claims transparency, it is indeed transparently [read in-your-face] reneging on a signed contract to create an opening to the advantage of some vested interest which is certainly not Metro Pacific, which is incidentally, not on the Palace's idol list.
Judging how this administration treats contracts signed by previous administrations i.e.; Maynilad, Manila Water, Stradcom, MRT-3, NAIA-3, EPIRA, toll fee hikes, etc. -the worse case scenario is that the Palace, at least as long as President Aquino resides in the House of Dreams, will never approve the SCTEX O&M for so long as Metro Pacific tollways is the winner. Which means that the San Miguel Toll Plaza will remain temporary for some time, perhaps even as the TPLEX marches on to Rosario, La Union.
Tsk, tsk, too bad
Which further means that all the efficiency that San Miguel infra's Ramon S. Ang, a.k.a. 'idol' as per the President himself, has inputed into building and operating TPLEX, will have to suffer long queues at San Miguel Tarlac SCTEX toll plaza, a consequence of an approving authority that obstinately seeks to ignore criticism, the rule of law, when it doesn't serve its opaque vested interests, and contractual obligations.
Meanwhile, to avoid road rage Armageddon, SCTEX has implemented pre-payment of exit toll from Mabalacat to San Miguel at select times of high traffic volume. The Mabalacat toll plaza has more space for more temp toll booths so this makes sense. Perhaps, SCTEX might as well make it a rule to collect tolls on entry from all motorists bound for San Miguel Tarlac, if not everyday, at least every weekend and every extended holiday weekend.
Worth a try?
What may help is to mirror the 1999 collection agreement between Skyway and SLEx; SLEx collects Skyway tolls at Calamba and Skyway collects SLEx tolls in Nichols. TPLEX Tarlac toll plaza can collect tolls from vehicles originating from SCTEX Mabalacat and SFEx Tipo, thereby avoiding the build up at the SCTEX San Miguel Tarlac temp toll plaza. To reduce the Manila bound queues at Mabalacat toll plaza, TPLEX Tarlac toll plaza can also collect tolls for vehicles going to Manila. That is until, DPWH, this administration willing, can build a toll plaza near La Paz, but that isn't even feasible until the third Quarter of this year. So meantime, regarding traffic, the message from the Palace is 'grin and bear it'. Then, about the SCTEX contract, could the message to Metro Pacific tollways about the SCTEX contract is 'anybody, but Metro Pacific...' ?