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Friday, January 16, 2015

THAT ‘CARMAGEDDON’


CHRISTMAS 2014 has become one of Senate President Franklin Drilon’s most “memorable” because of an excruciating road trip to Baguio City the day after Christmas.

A piqued Drilon announced on Niños Inocentes Day that, upon the Congress’ reopening on Jan. 19, he would call for a Senate investigation into the monster traffic that plagued motorists who drove through three interconnected tollways–North Luzon Expressway (NLEX), Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) and Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEX)–last Dec. 26 to reach the country’s summer capital.

The Senate President said that it took him almost half a day to travel to Baguio City, when the interconnection of NLEX and SCTEX plus the recent opening of the extended TPLEX was supposed to have cut the travel time to Baguio.

“From San Juan to Baguio City, it took me eleven-and-a-half hours because of the inefficiency of our toll system,” said Drilon . “I became confused with the NLEX, and SCTEX and so many TEXs, why is it so many are collecting toll from the motorists where only one should be collecting the entire toll?”

“It was the first time I experienced this in going to Baguio,” said Drilon as he narrated that at one point in his unpleasant trip, it took his vehicle an hour to traverse a two-kilometer strip of one of these three expressways.

“I will personally look into this matter in the Senate,” says Drilon. “I will call a hearing exclusively for this purpose so that we could come up with a solution regarding this problem. I can’t understand why the collection of toll fees can’t be integrated, so that only one entity handles the collection. It’s not rocket science.”

***

Ever the publicity hog, Arnel Paciano Casanova of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) was quick to work the press the day after in pretending to come to the rescue of Drilon and countless more motorist-survivors of the Dec. 26 carmageddon at the NLEX-SCTEX-TPLEX “parking lot.”

The BCDA president bared that this traffic nightmare would soon go away because the BCDA already approved last November an integration plan that would reduce the number of toll collection plazas in the three toll roads and thereby speed up vehicular traffic for both northbound and southbound motorists.

When asked by a reporter why this integration plan was not carried out before the holidays, Casanova’s reply was a non-sequitur: “We still need to build the new toll plazas and remove the existing ones.”

Couldn’t that have been done earlier, if the BCDA actually had such a plan months ago?

In fact, why did BCDA put this integration plan in the freezer for over five years, considering that it was proposed–according to Manila North Tollways Corp. (MNTC) president Rodrigo Franco–in 2009 yet?

“In 2009, we made a proposal to integrate the two expressways and amended it this year to expedite the implementation of the project but until now BCDA is yet to sign the integration agreement,” recalls Franco. 

Metro Pacific Tollways Development Corp. (MPTDC), submitted an unsolicited offer on Sept. 17, 2009 to manage, operate and maintain SCTEX. A key feature of its technical proposal was the operation of SCTEX and NLEX as “one integrated and contiguous expressway network.”

***

However, BCDA decided a month ago to privatize SCTEX through a solicited public bidding.

When MNTC and BCDA entered into a Business and Operating Agreement (BOA) covering the assignment by BCDA to MNTC of the concession over the SCTEX, this deal was anchored on the former’s payment to the latter of concession fees and its performance of certain or “committed” maintenance works.

As stated in the technical proposal that MNTC had submitted to BCDA, one of such “committed” maintenance works is the integration of SCTEX with NLEX to ensure the “interoperability of the toll collection system” of both expressways.

This will be achieved, according to the proposal, “by modifying the toll collection system of SCTEX through installation of devices and peripherals, reconfiguration and expansion of toll plazas, introduction of electronic toll system and software modification.”

While the agreement was executed in July 2011, the obligation of BCDA to turn over the management, operation and maintenance of SCTEX to MNTC had not become effective yet, due to the pending approval of the Office of the President (OP), one of the conditions precedent for the takeover by MNTC of SCTEX. 

Then in March 2014, MNTC presented to BCDA the idea of advancing the implementation of the NLEX-SCTEX Integration as a way to ease the mounting traffic congestion in certain choke points along the NLEX and SCTEX, especially during peak seasons.

***

On April 8, 2014, MNTC formalized the proposal to advance the implementation of the Integration as a stand-alone project.

The proposed Integration aims to:

Provide motorists seamless travel from NLEX to SCTEX and vice versa;

Adopt a common transit ticket system that will make operations more efficient and enhance motorists’ convenience; and

Use the NLEX Electronic Toll Collection Dedicated Short Range Communication system (or the EasyTrip TAG) for SCTEX, to increase subscription and throughput capacity for both NLEX and SCTEX toll lanes.

Such integration would involve, among others, (1) upgrading SCTEX’s collection system to make it compatible with that of NLEX, and (2) removal of the NLEX Dau Toll Barrier and SCTEX Mabalacat Toll Barrier plus the construction of smaller toll plazas at the Dau, Sta. Ines and Mabalacat entry and exit points.

WE found that BCDA and MNTC entered into discussions on the detailed scope and costing of the Integration works. MNTC agreed to advance the SCTEX cost of the Integration, subject to a reimbursement arrangement that varies depending on the outcome of the Price Challenge.

The terms are embodied in the latest draft of the Integration Agreement which BCDA and MNTC committed to present to their respective Boards for approval.

We have learned that the MNTC Board has already approved the Integration Agreement. However, BCDA has yet to obtain internal approval for this project.

So again, why is Casanova taking his own sweet time in acting on this NLEX-SCTEX Integration plan?

***

MNTC owns Tollway Management Corp. (TMC), which operates both NLEX and SCTEX. MNTC also operates the Cavite Expressway (CAVITEX) while the San Miguel Corp. (SMC)-Citra consortium operates TPLEX as well as the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX).

Casanova’s answer was wrong because he should have explained why he sat on the plan on the Aquino watch, which would have prevented the Dec. 26 traffic jam and stopped Drilon’s blood pressure from rising the day after Christmas.

Actually, my MNTC sources say that even when SCTEX was still under construction, this toll road operator already proposed as early as 2006 that SCTEX just “piggy back” on NLEX’s toll collection system so that both expressways, in using a unified collection system, would become “interoperable and seamless.”

“However, BCDA management at that time decided to have a separate toll collection system for SCTEX,” says one MNTC executive.

***

The concept behind this MNTC integration plan is for any Baguio-bound motorist to just pause at the NLEX to get a fee card (or slow down if his or her vehicle has an “Easy Trip” transponder), then drive non-stop through NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX until the Pangasinan or La Union exit where the driver stops briefly to pay the amount or let the car’s transponder do the paying.

Casanova claims, though, that this seamless solution to linkage hitches between and among these three Luzon tollways has been forwarded already to the Office of the President, which either means that it is Malacañang that has surprisingly put this worthy MNTC project in deep freeze or Casanova is once more passing the buck and engaging in finger-pointing in the face of the post-Dec. 26 public uproar spearheaded by Drilon.

Either way, what this means is that the easy solution here, as conceived by an irate Senate President, is not for Congress to conduct come 2015 yet another investigation (that might end up nowhere as what had befallen most congressional inquiries in aid of legislation), but for Drilon to either tell President Aquino to (1) take a look at the integration plan that could be hibernating at the Palace or (2) suggest to the Chief Executive to kick ass and order Casanova to implement it pronto.

***

Inaction on this five-year-old MNTC integration plan is symptomatic of BCDA’s inertia, if not hostility, on Casanova’s watch towards the agency’s private partners.

Despite the approval of MNTC’s operation and maintenance (O&M) contract in 2009 by the past Administration, the succeeding government deemed it fit to renegotiate the deal, leading to three renegotiations by BCDA and MNTC that culminated in 2013 with the latter’s submission of a much better offer to Government.

Incidentally, MNTC’s sweetened O&M proposal feature a 50-50 revenue-sharing formula plus a cash component of P3.5 billion, comprising an upfront payment of P2.9 billion and P600 million more for SCTEX bridge repair work and for the NLEX-SCTEX integration.

But despite the thrice-held negotiations, BCDA suddenly announced in mid-November the holding of a price challenge or competitive bidding for the maintenance of SCTEX.

Worse for MNTC, BCDA suddenly came out with newspaper advertisements announcing the price challenge without first notifying MNTC, much less discuss the auction’s Terms of Reference (TOR), in gross violation of the BOA that both parties signed in 2011.

This same belligerence has found both Casanova and BCDA in court battles with the state-run firm’s private developer-partners SM Land Inc. at the Bonifacio Global City (BGC) and Camp John Hay Development Corp. (CJHDevco) at Baguio’s John Hay Special Economic Zone (JHSEZ), over BCDA’s violations of its agreements with these real estate developers.

***

According to Casanova in his explanation, the volume of vehicles that used the three expressways went up by 25% to 35% over the Dec. 20-26 period, which was double the forecast that TMC made for the expressways for the Dec. 13-Jan. 5 period.

SCTEX posted a “new record high” of 57,000 vehicles last Dec. 26, or the day of Drilon’s trip.

MNTC’s Franco explained in a media interview that, “It was really just our capacity being overwhelmed by the volume of vehicles.”

In 2014’s first nine (9) months, Franco said that the volume of vehicles along NLEX went up by 6% to 181,448 per day, and–based on preliminary figures–to a record of over 252,000 last Dec. 26.

To address the unexpected volume surge, NLEX and SCTEX carried out quick fixes like opening spare lanes and counter flow lanes, according to Ramoncito Fernandez, who heads MNTC’s mother company Metro Pacific Tollways Corp. (MPTC).

“NLEX and SCTEX have opened spare lanes ad counter flow lanes complemented capacity with deployment of ambulant tellers to address volume surge,” says Fernandez.

TPLEX marketing head Tony Reyes said his company has similarly implemented measures like deploying more ambulant tellers to address the long queues.

“There were simply too many vehicles going north at that time,” he said, adding that the vehicular volume went up to 20,000 on Dec. 26, or triple the daily average of 6,000 to 7,000 vehicles.

“We only expected about a 20% to 30% increase in traffic volume,” he said. “But that time, the number was tripled. What made it worse was that all those vehicles traveled almost at the same time.”

***

Readers who missed a column can access www.duckyparedes.com/blogs. This is updated daily. Your reactions are welcome at duckyparedes@gmail.com or you can send me a message through Twitter @diretsahan.
- See more at: http://www.malaya.com.ph/business-news/opinion/%E2%80%98carmageddon%E2%80%99#sthash.b9FsjqCi.dpuf

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