Holy week Baptism of fire

Whether at the Tarlac or Carmen toll plaza, this year's Holy Week must've been a baptism of fire for the staff of TPLEx. As early as late morning of Holy Wednesday, sporadic build ups of queueing motorists ushered the beginning crescendo for the main 'Exodus' event on Holy Thursday and the reentry on Easter Sunday.

Go North!

Perhaps enticed by the opening of the TPLEx interchange all the way up to Carmen, Rosales and the projected 3 hr. Travel time from Balintawak to Baguio when the TPLEx reaches Rosario, La Union in 2016, many motorists took up the challenge to 'Go North' introducing a new pattern of dawn to dusk heavy traffic for the NLEx. It is quite conceivable that traffic volume on the NLEx-SCTEx-TPLEx this recent Holy Week was 60% more than the average.

Widening and Palace inaction

The expansion to 3x3 carriageway of the Sta. Rita to San Fernando segment of NLEx, along with the necessary installation anti-glare median barriers, like at the SLEx, is fast becoming a must wooing to consistently higher traffic volumes. As we've been insisting since 2009, the integration of NLEx, SCTEx and SFEx operations to eliminate the NLEx Dau and SCTEx Mabalacat toll barriers and their attendant 2.0km queues, easing end-to-end tollway journeys, is imperative. To our misfortune, the Palace, to this day, mysteriously resists approval, with all kinds of excuses and new conditions for delay.

Longer toll plaza queues and durations

Further proof of this enhanced volume is that no longer do the long queues at Balintawak, Mindanao, Dau and Tipo toll plazas abate by mid-afternoon of Maundy Thursday, making congestion a near 24 hour ordeal. The greater bugbear is the widening and upgrading of the MacArthur Highway from Binalonan, Pangasinan to Bued bridge, La Union but this is part of the DPWH's major upgrade of the Manila North Road which started in 2008. But this will soon tide over, leaving motorists at least a year's wait before PIDCo, the TPLEx builders cross the Bued river into Rosario, La Union.

Nothing abnormal for the South

In the South, the SLEx Calamba and Ayala toll plazas are no stranger to regular bursts of sporadic queueing that reach 800m up to 2.7 km even during ordinary weekends. As a rule, the farther one goes from the Metro whether one be on the the CAVITEx, SCTEx, TPLEx or STAR tollway, traffic density tends to be light to moderate as many travelers have already exited to intermediate destinations in Central Luzon or CALABARZON.

Dreading concrete reblocking

After relentlessly seeking MMDA approval, DPWH embarked on the biggest concreting reblocking of EDSA this Holy Week, radically reducing, but not eliminating the piecemeal reblocking that it has been doing on EDSA every weekend for over thirty years now. Despite this, the reblocking program is far from over and will take several more weekends before EDSA's pavement is restored, ready for asphalt overlay.

Premature panic

After initial fears of traffic meltdown on the Balintawak-Roosevelt section of EDSA on account of the year-long major DPWH rehabilitation of Dario Bridge, the effective implementation of lane dividers and counterflow lanes have averted traffic grid lock. After all, this northern section of EDSA never had the traffic density of the Ortigas to Magallanes portion of EDSA south.

Citra maintains course and speed

Elsewhere, Citra Metro Manila Skyway has begun erecting columns for Skyway Stage 3 along the Osmeña boulevard portion of South superhighway. Citra has a habit of finishing the construction stages ahead of schedule if it involves the central median 'Sosrabahu' columns with rotating pier heads. Though Citra, on the average, is usually ahead of schedule, the Nagtahan to Aurora Blvd., and Quezon Ave. sections are designed to be stacked double deck carriageways [upper deck south bound, lower deck north bound] with columns to the side. The rationale for the double deck spans is to save on private property expropriation, without any sacrifice to the Skyway's 3x3 carriageway plus emergency shoulder width. It would be interesting to see if Citra can maintain being ahead of schedule when it comes to these rather difficult sections of Skyway Stage 3.

Accelerate approval

Meantime, the construction of the NAIA Skyway will still have to reach the point when the builders will need to reduce the lanes available for 'live' traffic on the projected route. CAVITEx is waiting for the green light from TRB to proceed with the connector expressway from the bayside reclamation area to C-5/SLEx. Likewise, the Merville Interchange feeder road interconnection with C-5 and the Skyway Stage 1 is still being considered. The widening of the SLEx at the junction with Ayala's Daang Hari expressway, the Pnoy Adminstration's first PPP, is proceeding.

More northern connections

More traffic relief comes with the mid-year commissioning of NLEx Segment 9, the spur expressway from the Smart Connect clover leaf to MacArthur Highway in Valenzuela. This spur expressway, called Segment 10.1 will connect to C3, the so-called Harbor Link and segment 10.2, otherwise known as the NLEx Metro expressway over the PNR rail right of way, which in turn, connects to the Skyways Stage 3 Common alignment at PUP in the vicinity of Nagtahan.

Real time traffic via Twitter

Judging by the twitter feeds on weekend traffic flows from NLEx's Nligtas and TRBSafe, Mindanao Ave. Toll Plaza has proven to be quite popular to many northbound motorists. But there will still be quite a wait for government to approve when NLEx can be allowed to build and connect to the Commonwealth/Katipunan flyover via Luzon Ave.

Act fast

Herein lies, the low hanging fruit that the Pnoy administration can act on to add to its impressive roster of infrastructure achievements, even considering that the inauguration of the bigger projects on-stream will be left to his successor. The easiest is the NLEx-SCTEx integration O&M contract woth Metro Pac tollways, but being won by Metro Pac, it seems destined to be not on the top of the Palaces' approval in-tray. There's the C-5 link from Manila Bay to SLEx, the Merville Interchange Feeder Road connector, the NLEx extension from Mindanao Ave. to Commonwealth-Katipunan flyover and the full-blast concrete reblocking of EDSA.

What's if, what's not

Looking at the glass half empty, we hope that the next administration doesn't waste valuable time in wrangling with Constitutionally mandated funding of approved projects, 'fine tuning' i.e., strangling business friendly provisions of the BOT Law into the PPP, appropriating Legislature approved funds to other purposes via other Departments, misunderstanding the General Appropriations Act on how the Department of Budget management works and worse of all, the corruption broad brush witch hunt and paranoia that was inflicted on contracts approved by all the post-Cory administrations. Looking at the glass half full, we can see that eager and favored private investors, like San Miguel Infra, can really make a difference, cutting down project delivery dates by at least 50% in the case of TPLEx and NAIA Skyway. And never underestimate the solid popularity of the administration which has kept positive spirits up, despite so many delays. Yes, cramming can deliver results, but if we didn't delay too long, we could have squeezed even more projects into the 6-year Pnoy term. Lesson learned and mistakes not to be repeated? Hopefully.