"On" again

As the "on" again, "off" again Luzonian's love affair with Baguio takes a renewed positive turn, traffic congestion forced the City Fathers to go to the extent of discouraging tourism in the downtown area as parking was already impossible. Like the Christmas-New Year traffic and the Papal visit holidays in the City of Pines, the pre Holy Week traffic reprised itself with a vengeance.

Traffic remedies from 1975

Right after the Panabenga flower festival, Baguio City's traffic authorities was already alarmed as 44 road construction projects were still on stream. Traffic was so bad that the City had to dust-off and apply drastic pre-1990 earthquake one-way traffic schemes on Kisad and Legarda Roads and Outlook Drive, remedies first deployed during the foreign travel ban Martial Law years, circa early 70's. DPWH's Sec. Singson also took the opportunity to schedule one way traffic on Kennon Road.

TRB: cause for delays

Holy Week 2015 was to be the ultimate acid test. Even as Sen. Drilon successfully moved the integration of NLEx-SCTEx forward from its Palace in-tray slumber, the full benefits of integration can only happen after all the infrastructure improvements, carriageway widening and toll plaza additions and decommissioning is approved by TRB.

Pass thru and express tellers

Still, Metro Tollways devised a novel scheme which revived the NLEx Sta. Inez toll plaza, declared Dau NLEx toll plaza a pass through zone and made the SCTEx Mabalacat plaza a combined collection point for both NLEx and SCTEx northbound tolls. A layered and fishbone system of toll teller booths, totaling 48 points, allied with a counterflow lane and ambulant tellers was arranged to increase north bound payment transaction capacity at SCTEx's main plaza.

"Chedeng" dampens expectations

After Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Metro Tollways, applied the pass through system to the Manila bound segment at Dau NLEx. Result? Traffic was greatly eased with maximum queue lengths of 1.0 km occurring only between 900AM to 1200NN of Thursday. Similarly eased traffic marked the Manila bound reentry on Easter. A far cry from the suffering that Sen. Drilon and Sec. Abaya experienced last Christmas. Granted that storm "Chedeng" and the news of Baguio's gridlock made some families cancel their Holy Week plans, reducing what would have been record volumes of tourist traffic, the new measures of reducing toll plaza stops and integrating collections worked.

Charged from the farthest

The perceptive among you will note that the pass through system works on the assumption that when one enters the main toll plaza entry, like NLEx Dau southbound on Sundays, one doesn't need a ticket, since wherever the ticketless motorist exits, he or she will be charged from the farthest entry point anyway. Previously, before the construction of the Skyway at-grade Nichols toll plaza entry in 2010, all southbound Skyway-SLEx toll collections worked on the same principle, in fact, on a daily basis. SOMCO claimed that certain control measures were needed as there was some "leakage" [plenty of missing toll cards] in the former system which is why Skyway had to build the at-grade entry toll plaza. But if these "leakages" can be traced and fixed, eliminating the main entry toll plaza for every toll road concession should be done.

Lane expansions TRB delayed

With less toll stops and faster toll queue processing, the main traffic bottleneck at NLEx has now been identified as the San Fernando-Candaba Viaduct-Sta. Rita 2x2 carriageway section – the same section that Metro Tollways wanted to expand to 3x3 carriageways 4 years ago, if only TRB cared to approve Metro Tollways expansion plans along with a toll fare increase.

Alabang viaduct

For the past several years, regular commuting motorists from the South have benefitted from MTD Alloy's reconstruction of the SLEx Alabang viaduct. Declared by DPWH 20 years ago as structurally unsound to take heavy truck traffic, truckers bound for the Port of Manila carrying export goods made in CALABARZON, were forced to exit SLEx at ground level and re-enter at the Alabang toll plaza entry. MTD's expansion of the Viaduct to 4x4 dual carriageway, has somewhat alleviated the traffic merge into the the 3x3 segment of Skyway at-grade.

Skyway Alabang Toll Plaza

Bottleneck to the Skyway

The commissioning of Skyway Stage 2 elevated in 2011 has enhanced express journey choices for motorists bound for Makati and all points beyond. Every morning commute, many Makati bound motorists already take the on-ramp to Stage 2 elevated Alabang entry toll plaza. Recently, the enhanced traffic caused by a growing economy, cheaper fuel and exploding vehicle sales has brought frequent morning congestion to Skyway at-grade at the merge point for vehicles taking this on-ramp. This toll paying traffic queue is joined by Makati bound traffic coming from the Alabang CBD. Result? Twitter alerts from TRBSAFE and SOMCO frequently warn of traffic due to elevated Skyway toll plaza queues that reach up to Alabang Viaduct, hampering through traffic flow bound for Skyway at-grade.

Wait till Stage 3 opens

With Skyway Stage 3 to Balintawak just two years away from completion, traffic volumes heading for Stage 3 on the elevated coming from the Alabang Viaduct will definitely aggravate congestion at the Stage 2 north bound on-ramp. Solution? Take advantage of San Miguel Infrastructure's recent moves to consolidate ownership with its partners that own Skyway, SLEx and STAR tollway.

From five to two

As the dominant partner in the three toll expressway concessions, San Miguel Infrastructure should have less hurdles consolidating toll collection of the 3 toll road concessions compared to the integration of NLEx [Metro Tollways concession] and BCDA's SCTEx and PIDC's TPLEx. Thus for a Buendia to Batangas all expressway journey, an opportunity arises for reducing toll paying stops at toll plazas from today's 5 – Nichols, Calamba, Ayala-Saimsim, STAR Sto. Tomas, STAR Batangas terminus – toll plaza stops.

Revive Skyway A and B

Proposal: Citra SOMCO convert the staggered Alabang Skyway elevated toll plaza to be exclusive for south bound toll collection only. All North bound traffic entering the Stage 2 elevated Alabang plaza will drive through 2 express pass through lanes. To be able to collect tolls for the Makati bound segment of Stage 1 and Stage 2, Skyway will need to rebuild Skyway Nichols A and B toll plazas where it used to stand. This way, north bound traffic queueing at the Alabang toll plaza is transferred closer to Makati, avoiding congestion on the elevated's Alabang on ramp.

Reduction, alternative

Without argument, reducing toll plaza stops and simplifying toll collecting and ticketing greatly reduces motorist inconvenience. Great for daily commuters and heavy tourist traffic on holidays and long weekends. With plans for the Central Luzon Expwy branching Northeast from SCTEx La Paz toll plaza to Cabanatuan City and SLEx Toll Road 4 branching Southeast from Ayala-Saimsim toll plaza to Lucena City in the works, reducing the number of toll plaza stops along the main thoroughfare expressways should be covered in the design stage.