Quick thinking, quick reaction

It was with admirable speed that BCDA, SCTEx O&M contractor Metro Pacific Tollways and PIDC, operators and builders of TPLEx remedied the festering traffic congestion at the temporary SCTEx toll plaza at the San Miguel/Luisita interchange. Lured by the opening of the all dual carriageway lanes of TPLEx from SCTEx La Paz to TPLEx Ramos just before Christmas 2013, a new traffic pattern emerged, leading to sustained higher volumes of North bound traffic. No doubt, the contiguous NLEx-SCTEx-TPLEx tollways contributed to the record 2.5M crowd at Baguio City's Panabenga festival. To think, Baguio City was already experiencing record downtown traffic starting with the annual PMA commencement rites. The other downside was the long toll paying queues at the SCTEx San Miguel temporary plaza. 

From baby steps to big buck plans

To mitigate the problem, SCTEx initially 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 made sense. By March, BCDA arranged with TPLEx Tarlac Central toll plaza to collect SCTEx tolls, thereby dismantling the SCTEx San Miguel temp toll plaza. Issuance of Manila bound SCTEx toll cards are now being done at TPLEx Central. But this is only temporary as DPWH will build a PHP 175 million 7-lane SCTEx toll plaza in Tarlac by Q3 this year.

The southern example

This is only a stop gap measure, as it will not eliminate the multiple toll plaza queues travelers will have to endure heading North. We look to the south for inspiration where ever since 1999, Citra Metro Manila Skyway, O&M of the Skyway and PNCC, then the O&M of the SLEx up to Calamba at that time, enacted a collection agreement where by SLEx collects the Skyway portion of tolls at Calamba and Skyway collects SLEx portion of tolls in Nichols, thereby eliminating the need to build a giant toll plaza in Alabang/Filinvest. Now that Skyway, SLTC and STAR tollway have San Miguel Infra as a major strategic partner, what's to stop them from eliminating either the SLEx Sto. Tomas or the STAR toll plaza at Sto. Tomas to reduce toll barrier stops?

Today Rosales, tomorrow Rosario

In the near future and if TPLEx can open Rosales, Pangasinan by April as planned, TPLEx can instead collect tolls from vehicles originating from SCTEx Mabalacat and SFEx Tipo, thereby avoiding the build up at the TPLEx Tarlac Central toll plaza. To reduce the Manila bound queues at SCTEx Mabalacat toll plaza, TPLEx Rosales toll plaza can also collect tolls for vehicles going to Manila or at least distribute SCTEx valid toll cards at Rosales. When TPLEx reaches Rosario, La Union in 2016, this terminal toll plaza can take over what Rosales did for April 2014. If this happens, the toll gate queues from Balintawak to TPLEx terminus will be reduced from 5 to 4. 

Buendia to Baguio when Skyway opens

Projecting into 2016, when the Skyway Stage 3 opens, a motorist coming from Buendia, heading for Baguio will stop at a tollgate in Buendia Skyway, then either Bonifacio Skyway to head for NLEx Balintawak or C3-NLEx Metro expressway connector. After that, the next stop is NLEx Dau, then SCTEx Mabalacat, then TPLEx Tarlac and finally TPLEx Rosario. That's 8 stops for a total distance of 270kms, not counting the DPWH toll gates at Kennon Road. Its is our dream wish that ETC [electronic toll collection] interoperability is in effect by then so we can use Easy Trip and E-PASS to get through all these 8 toll gates with ease. But that begins with the TRB mandating it and an ETC clearing house financed by the private sector, which is another story.

Reducing toll barriers

The ideal scenario can only happen if and when the Palace approve the SCTEx O&M that allows integration with NLEx. This not only eliminates 2 major toll plazas but also negates the need for BCDA to spend PHP175 million for a new toll plaza at Tarlac, if NLEx, SCTEx and TPLEx can consolidate toll collection. With this, the ideal of only 2 toll gate stops from Balintawak to Rosario,  La Union can be realized. Although it can be argued that for such a long trip, a couple of stops should relieve drowsiness, that's where tollway side concessions for multi-function petrol forecourts come in. They are more relaxing than stop and go traffic at a toll barrier queue every 35kms. Besides, in Europe, the ideal distance for driving non-stop is 300kms.

The high cost of Palace inaction

In the meantime, while the Palace delays the implementation of the approved SCTEx O&M, BCDA will have to fork out unforeseen expenses like PHP 111 million for SCTEx major road resurfacing and heavy maintenance, PHP175 million for the Tarlac terminal toll plaza, an unspecified amount for the rehabilitation and addition of bridge spans for the  Potrero viaduct destroyed by typhoon Maring, plus the interest payment due to JICA for the loan that built the SCTEx.

Let Metro Pacific take the strain

For those of us stuck in traffic, BCDA is doing all it can, but the biggest help it can get is for the Palace to implement the SCTEx O&M contract that includes integrating operations with the NLEx. The delays to this is already taxing us motorists and the BCDA budget. If not, the Palace should come out in the open to explain to us as to why we motorists have to suffer while refusing to allow BCDA to pass on such expenses to improve traffic and infrastructure to Metro Pacific Tollways.