More roads, more traffic, more toll

Surely, the more roads get built, the more traffic it attracts. Up north, the opening of the TPLEx no doubt increased traffic at the SCTEx temporary terminal toll plaza at San Miguel. TPLEx, though built by seasoned construction outfits by concessionaire PIDC, are, understandably, new to tollway operations and management but they have been fast learners.

Good start

Now PIDC may have taken twice as long to build a quarter of what BCDA finished in three years with the SCTEx but its still a good effort and they are on the right track. Their signage for minimum speed, ramp speed and lay-bys are similar to the MATES signage in SLEx. The cyan blue and green signage backgrounds are correct, the kerning [spaces between letters], the speed limit roundels and the ratio of empty space to the size of sans-serif fonts are also in keeping with international practice.

Improvements over SCTEx

Altogether, it was a good decision to open to full dual carriageway traffic all the way to Pura as it shows how good TPLEx safety standards are. The median is concrete and is as high as the Balintawak to Bocaue segment of the NLEx. That height also cancels out headlight glare from on coming traffic so they won't need the anti-glare paddles that MATES recently installed on SLEx. Since TPLEx follows the narrower Japanese/BCDA width specs for expressways, the use of a concrete median is spot on. Also TPLEx is raised above the surrounding flood plain so the side guard rails are concrete to prevent vehicles flying off into the rice paddies. On a few sections, the guard rails, like all of the SCTEx, are galvanized ARMCO that bounce a wayward vehicle back into the carriageway. Both guard rails and median have yellow diamond reflectors at headlight level.

Traffic bottlenecks of the future

Eventually, with all the on-going cross-Metro expressway projects, 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 are so pricey that mega toll plazas like Bocaue NLEx and Nichols SLEx add to infra costs. The alternative to huge swathes of real estate to accommodate long toll paying queues lie in ETC.

ETC need not be exclusive

All that long weekend traffic emphasizes how useful ETC [electronic toll collection] is in reducing traffic. In fact, there should be longer and more exclusive lanes for ETC like E-PASS and Easy Trip. In China some expressways are only passable for vehicles with ETC transponders, but in true Customer Service fashion, one can buy an ETC account on the spot and very quickly.

Many ways to ETC

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 soon Vendeka's RFID sticker for SLEx – TRB should take a 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 tollway operators to demand that they stick to one ETC platform. It not like the way the Octopus card will soon unite all three Metro Manila Light Rail ticketing systems as all Light Rail systems are run as a monopoly of the government.

Welcome all

Much as it isn't wise to mandate one technology, it may be wise to have all kinds of ETC systems operate in all tollways. Malaysia's tollways allow ETC by smart card and RFID tags similar to E-PASS. NLEx used to have separate lanes for smart cards. The best and the fastest are the RFID tags like E-Pass and Easy Trip. They should also be allowed to be transferable from one owner to another, just like in Europe. The E-TAP card system has the advantage of being transferable and cheap too. But these so-called smart cards cannot be read as fast as E-Pass and Easy Trip. In fact, in Australia, the ETC lanes have no barriers as their E-Pass/EasyTrip RFID tags can be read even if the vehicle is going through the toll plaza at the speed limit of 100km/h.

The sticker controversy

The RFID stickers are similar to the controversial LTO RFID registration stickers of 2009. They contain a lot of information and can be read faster than a smart card, but they are not transferable, which is a disadvantage. Put it another way, its a great way to make money for the sticker issuer as motorists have to buy one for every vehicle they need it for. Our TRB applies the pay-as-you go system for tolling so RFID stickers like the Motorway tax/pass for Swiss and Austrian Autobahnen do not apply. Besides, the motorway tax/pass is a flat fee paid whether you use the Autobahn system or not.

Golden opportunity

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. Can you imagine if Globe, Sun and Smart didn't interconnect? We don't want that to happen to our budding tollway industry, would we?

Haiyan first?

Understandably, the massive effort to restore infrastructure in the South is of paramount priority. But it should not be at the expense of projects that can be undertaken by the private sector. The government just needs to act fast by approving those long waiting in the in tray, along with the long delayed toll hikes that make the Philippines look like cheapskate cheaters when it comes to complying with contracts, further damaging any success for the PPP.