ICYMI: Return of NLEX cash lanes, Valenzuela City toll holiday, Metro Manila truck ban

A lengthy catch-up is in order, folks
by TopGear.com.ph | Dec 13, 2020
PHOTO: Google Maps, Valenzuela City on Facebook, Bong Nebrija on Facebook, Jerome Ascaño

Who didn’t see this coming: NLEX is set to have cash lanes again

“Barely two weeks into the implementation of fully-cashless payments on the country’s major tollways, cash lanes are set to make a comeback on the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX).

Metro Pacific Tollways Corporation (MPTC) chief communication officer Junji Quimbo made the announcement during an interview earlier today on Dobol B sa News TV. ‘Maglalagay na po tayo ng mga cash lane,’ he said. ‘Ibabalik natin ang cash lane, magtatalaga na tayo ng cash lanes halimbawa sa Balintawak toll plaza—yun pong malalaki, maglalagay ulit tayo ng cash lane doon.’

“Apparently, Malacañang itself is in favor of reopening cash lanes. ‘Napag-alaman namin kahapon na ito rin ang gusto ng Office of the President at MMDA,’ Quimbo continued. ‘May isang option na sabay na RFID at cash [so] ibabalik natin ang konsepto na yun.’

“Based on the official’s statement, combining cash and RFID options appears to be the plan for smaller toll plazas, with dedicated cash lanes reserved for bigger toll plazas.

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“There’s no word yet on whether cash lanes are also set to reappear on other major tollways—whether under MPTC or San Miguel Corporation—or for how long they will be available. You may recall that the Department of Transportation (DOTr) has promised to be more forgiving of RFID-related infractions until January 11 next year, to give some leeway to motorists who have yet to have RFID stickers installed on their vehicles.”

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Let’s recap what started the NLEX RFID mess this week...

“On December 7, Mayor Rex Gatchalian of Valenzuela City followed through on his threat to issue a cease and desist order if the NLEX Corporation was unable to solve its RFID system woes by 5:01pm of that day. Essentially, the company is now barred from collecting toll fees within the jurisdiction of Valenzuela City. All tollways in the city limits must keep barriers up and allow motorists to pass free of charge.

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“The move comes just hours after the Valenzuela City government rejected the NLEX Corporation’s request for 15 days to address issues relating to RFID implementation—a request the local government labeled as ‘not justifiable.’

“‘We have to remember, ilan sa mga sasakyan na dumaan ngayon are now enjoying what is rightfully theirs. Meaning pag hindi ka binigyan ng maayos na serbisyo, then therefore, dapat hindi tayo nagbabayad para sa isang serbisyo na hindi makatarungan,’ the mayor told reporters moments after the order was served and toll gates lifted their barriers.

“Gatchalian clarified, though, that nothing has been shut down: ‘Ang amin lang, binawi lang ng pansamantala ang business permit ng NLEX. Yung operation ng tollway, tuloy-tuloy yun. Hindi lang sila pwede mangolekta. Nothing is being shut down, let me clarify that.’”

Here’s what Valenzuela City is requiring NLEX Corporation to accomplish

“Mayor Rex Gatchalian has now officially laid down the requirements in order for the local government to lift the suspension of the NLEX Corporation’s business permit in the city. In his letter to the company, Gatchalian cited three main requirements, which you can see below:

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  1. Clear and concrete solutions to various problems being encountered by the public, like: RFID stickers that easily or immediately wear out; sensors that cannot promptly read RFID stickers; missing and/or untimely crediting of loads, erroneous and/or delayed and/or bulk charging of toll fees, and display systems installed in toll gates not showing the real time load.
  2. The above solutions should have clear and specific deadlines.
  3. Establish measurable performance indexes of success, e.g. high readability rate. For this purpose, your company should likewise furnish the City Government with copies of this report on a monthly basis. The City Government reserves the right to suspend your business permit again should you fail to furnish us with copies of the subject monthly report and/or in the event of low rate or poor performance.

“Gatchalian clarified that the company’s proposed solutions should be satisfactory to both the LGU and the public. The LGU will then check the company’s compliance after the latter has confirmed compliance of all three requirements.

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“The mayor also stated that the letter serves as a ‘stern warning’ to NLEX Corporation that failure of compliance with Valenzuela City’s Executive Orders will result in the revocation of the business permits of all of its toll plazas within the city limits.”

Got charged toll fees in Valenzuela City? You should have been reimbursed by now

“After the NLEX Corporation’s business-permit suspension took effect in Valenzuela City on December 8, some motorists complained that their Easytrip accounts had been charged toll when they passed through a toll plaza within the city’s borders.

In an interview with TeleRadyo, Junji Quimbo, chief communication officer of MPTC, explained that an RFID sensor in one lane of the toll plaza had not been deactivated ‘by accident,’ which led to motorists passing through that lane to be charged toll.

“‘Yung isang lane po out of seven lanes, yung lane number four po, hindi po naisara by accident,’ he said in the interview. ‘Nakalimutan lang.’

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“The sensor has since been deactivated.

“Quimbo added that MPTC has already returned the accidentally charged load to the Easytrip accounts of affected motorists. ‘Inaksyunan namin kaagad,’ he said. ‘Lahat ng mga dumaan dun na nabawasan, sinasauli na po namin ang mga load, binabalik na po sa account.

“‘Tinext na sila kahapon nung ating nangangasiwa ng mga load, tapos na-acknowledge po nila, yung kanilang statement of account—yun pong lumalabas po sa telepononare-reflect na po na naibalik na.’”

NLEX Corporation wants to make amends via this action plan

“To be frank, many of the points in the NLEX Corporation’s ‘RFID 100’ action plan—like the deployment of more personnel and the installation of additional antennas and readers—are no-brainers. There are a few plans here worth noting, though. The boosted replacement program for defective stickers and the implementation of on-air reloading are worth keeping an eye on. Check out the details below:

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  1. For toll-plaza congestion: Relocation of RFID installation and reloading sites at Karuhatan and Mindanao toll plazas; installation of additional RFID antennas and handheld readers; deployment of more on-site RFID assistants and technicians; third-party full-scale system audit; an enhanced equipment maintenance and replacement program; redesign of Karuhatan Interchange to expand capacity; inclusion of Ugong in Traffic MOA
  2. For defective RFID stickers: Intensify calls to subscribers with unreadable accounts; boost defective RFID-sticker replacement program
  3. For account-balance issues: Periodic notifications regarding account balance via SMS or Viber and email; reinforced motorist communication and education on account balance, monitoring, and reloading; dissemination of information from partners with crediting issues; set up additional reloading sites near toll plazas; launch of on-air reloading by Q1 of 2021

“‘Hangad namin ang maayos ninyong paglalakbay sa buong NLEX-SCTEX, makaaasa po kayong patuloy ang aming mga ginagawang hakbang upang ma-improve ang aming serbisyo,’ the company said in its announcement.”

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The TRB has also issued a stern warning to tollway operators

“The Toll Regulatory Board has also released its own list of actions that toll operators need to take to ‘achieve least inconvenience’ in this new cashless toll-payment system.

“In its statement, the TRB said it will impose penalties or even suspend toll collections of operators who continue to violate the implementing rules and regulations of this cashless system. Take note that this applies not only to thoroughfares under MPTC, but also to those operated by SMC.

“You can check out the full list here, but we’ll tell you know that it sounds very similar to the NLEX Corporation’s ‘RFID 100’ action plan, only shorter. Your guess is as good as ours as to whether or not this will actually make a difference. Frankly, we’re just hoping the TRB’s threat of suspending toll collections will result in actual improvements along all major expressways.”

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Still in tollway news, ‘barrierless’ toll plazas are in the works...

“The accidental charging of toll fees in Valenzuela City has raised an entirely new question among motorists altogether: If tollways can charge motorists at toll plazas that quickly even without the use of barriers, then why don’t the operators stick with this barrierless system?

“Well, in a recent press briefing, TRB private sector director Raymundo Junia said this barrierless system is ‘the ultimate objective.’ However, he added that authorities still have to make the necessary preparations so problems will be minimized once the system is fully implemented.

“The removal of barriers along toll plazas will, in theory, result in better traffic flow at toll plazas. Junia said that cash transactions take approximately 11 seconds per vehicle, and the use of RFIDs improves that to just five seconds. ‘Surely, kung walang barrier yan, it will even improve on the five seconds na estimate namin,’ he explained. 

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“No word, though, on how soon the TRB plans to roll out this supposedly more convenient barrierless system.”

...and so is RFID-sticker interoperability

“The DOTr, SMC TPLEX Corporation, MPTC, and NLEX Corporation have signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to test the interoperability of the Autosweep and Easytrip RFIDs. With this MOA, the toll operators will test their RFIDs specifically for NLEX, the Tarlac–Pangasinan–La Union Expressway, and the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) to determine the read rate percentage.

“There will be 45 vehicles of different classifications involved in this testing, each equipped with either an Autosweep RFID activated using an Easytrip account, or an Easytrip sticker activated using an Autosweep account. This test will be conducted for 14 consecutive days, after which the participants will submit the test transaction reports and dashcam video recordings to the steering committee. Then, within five days, the committee will determine the read rate percentage using the data collected over the two-week testing period. 

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“The DOTr’s statement reads: ‘The test is part of the ongoing campaign by the DOTr, through the TRB, to implement a policy of toll interoperability for the fast, efficient, and seamless travel of motorists along various toll roads, as the country continues to recover from the impact of COVID-19 pandemic.’”

With the return of cash lanes, so much for NLEX’s new toll-plaza signage

“The NLEX Corporation is implementing another measure that should help eliminate tollbooth gridlock. Its latest announcement advises the public on the new toll-plaza signage that will be used on NLEX and SCTEX. Along the said expressways, lanes leading to tollbooths are classified as follows:

  1. RFID: Line up here if your vehicle is already equipped with an RFID tag—Easytrip is used on NLEX and SCTEX—and your account has sufficient load for your journey.
  2. RFID reload: Existing RFID subscribers with insufficient load in their accounts may top up here.
  3. Emergency lane: This is for the exclusive use of ambulance units and official vehicles of the Philippine National Police, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the Bureau of Fire Protection. At entry plazas along the closed system of the tollways (the section that charges toll based on distance traveled, as opposed to a flat rate), this also serves as an RFID installation lane, according to the latest advisory.
  4. RFID/emergency lane: Those falling under the first and third categories may pass through this lane. As with the regular emergency lane, this also serves as an RFID installation lane at entry plazas along the closed system.
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“The company hasn’t gone into detail about how many of each type of lane will be available at specific toll plazas, especially with cash lanes set to make a return, but it has issued a list of specific entry lanes that cater to RFID applicants. If you don’t have an RFID sticker yet, check out the list below.”

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Are tollway operators making money from the shift to RFIDs? SMC’s answer is no

“In an official statement, SMC boss Ramon S. Ang conceded that his company could never have been prepared for such a sudden shift to 100% cashless tollways.

“‘Autosweep RFID has been available for free to motorists for over five years,” Ang said. ‘However, despite continuing efforts to promote it in villages, malls, and the expressways, penetration has remained low—at only in the low 40% as of January to July this year.

“‘All that changed with the pandemic and the government’s decision to implement 100% cashless toll collection. Given that we budget and allocate resources before the year starts and usually based these on previous, actual, and projected needs, we simply could not have foreseen that a pandemic would necessitate government mandating fully cashless transactions.

“He also assured motorists that this isn’t some ploy to squeeze motorists out of their hard-earned money, either. According to him, SMC is shouldering additional costs to comply with the government mandate: ‘In fact, the additional expenditures being made for the unplanned implementation of 100% electronic toll collection—including additional manpower, new machines to upgrade all lanes at toll plazas, as well as the sourcing of cards and stickers to be given for free to millions of motorists (many of whom are non-regular users)—will not be passed on in the form of higher toll fees.’

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“Ang shared that all SMC-operated tollways are now RFID-ready, and that the company’s system has a 98% read rate from up to five meters away. He acknowledged, however, that SMC is currently trying to address a sticker shortage: ‘We do not just print stickers. These are specially ordered from foreign suppliers, who also have manpower and production limitations due to pandemic restrictions in their respective countries. This has led to limited and staggered deliveries.’

“He added that the surge in applicants came from non-regular users, saying that despite the high demand for RFID stickers, traffic volume along SMC expressways remains low.”

Moving on to other thoroughfares, be on the lookout for counterflowing cyclists on EDSA

“Apparently, some cyclists can’t be bothered to find proper places to cross EDSA, instead opting to use U-turn slots to make it to the other side. The worst part about it is that the act involves having to take the major thoroughfare’s busy traffic head-on.

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“In a Facebook post earlier today, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) traffic chief Bong Nebrija warned counterflowing cyclists on EDSA to stop choosing convenience over safety. Footage uploaded by the official on social media shows bicycle riders recklessly trying to cross the highway with complete disregard for their well-being.

“Nebrija also griped that despite these cyclists’ actions, the motorist will be the one to shoulder the blame in the event of an accident.

“‘Ano ba talagang disiplina meron tayo? Pambihira o. Hindi ba nila iniisip ang kaligtasan nila? Sinasalubong nila yung traffic na napakabilis diyan. Tapos yan pag tinamaan, nadisgrasya, damay yung driver,’ Nebrija stressed, adding that the MMDA recently apprehended a cyclist not just for counterflowing, but for not wearing proper gear and ferrying a child, too.

“Suicidal na talaga ang mga tao ngayon eh,” he said. “Nakikipag-pagtintero sa kamatayan itong mgato eh.”

After pushing for cashless tollways, DOTr shifts its focus to PMVIC activation

“With quarantine policies easing up, principals of different private motor vehicle inspection centers (PMVICs) across the country have doubled their efforts to comply with the strict standards set by the government.

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“According to our sources, DOTr secretary Arthur Tugade conducted ocular inspections of PMVICs in Visayas a few days ago to determine if these establishments comply with the standards set by the agency under Memorandum Order 2019-009, or the Revised guidelines for the authorization of Private Motor Vehicle Inspection Centers.

“Once a PMVIC meets all the requirements, the DOTr issues a certificate to operate so it can accommodate applications for vehicle testing as part of the Land Transportation Office’s (LTO) registration requirements. A total of 138 PMVICs are targeted for completion.

“Sources say that recently, six additional PMVICs have been issued a certificate to operate by the DOTr. These newly activated facilities are now required to forward a Motor Vehicle Inspection Report (MVIR) to the LTO for every motorcycle and light vehicle that undergoes the 60-point vehicle roadworthiness test.

“‘All LTO Regional Offices, District Offices, and Extension Offices are to require a Motor Vehicle Inspection Report (MVIR) from a duly accredited Private Motor Vehicle Inspection Center (PMVIC) within the interim GAOR [General Area of Responsibility] by the LTO. Such MVIR must be dated within sixty (60) days prior to the date of registration renewal,’ indicates the memorandum signed by DOTr undersecretary for administrative service/franchising review staff Artemio Tuazon Jr., dated November 23, 2020.

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“Originally scheduled to begin in August, the activation of the PMVICs was delayed after the government imposed a series of lockdowns, preventing European technicians from installing the required equipment. These PMVICs will totally replace more than 1,000 private emission testing centers, which have been operating on provisional authority for several decades.”

The MRT-3 is once again capable of running at 60kph

“After months of incremental speed increases, the MRT-3 now runs at a faster speed of 60kph, further shortening travel and waiting times for passengers.

“Average wait time for trains is now at 3.5 to four minutes from the previous eight to 9.5 minutes. Travel from North Avenue station to Taft Avenue station is cut to 50 minutes from the previous one hour and 15 minutes. Trains from North Avenue station to Shaw Boulevard station (both directions) run at 60kph, while trains from Shaw Boulevard station to Taft Avenue station (directions) run at 55kph.

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“The last time the MRT-3 ran at 60kph was in September 2013. The improving speed is the result of rail replacement works in the line, as part of the MRT-3’s rehabilitation program. This project is being implemented by maintenance provider Sumitomo–Mitsubishi Heavy Industries from Japan.”

Heads-up: Metro Manila’s truck ban returns on December 14

“Responding to the request of Metro Manila mayors, the MMDA will resume enforcing a 24-hour truck ban on EDSA beginning Monday, December 14, according to a report by CNN Philippines. Other major roads, meanwhile, will allow the passage of trucks during window hours.

“The stretch of EDSA from Magallanes to North Avenue shall be totally off-limits to trucks with six or more wheels. Other major roads under the jurisdiction of the MMDA shall impose a truck ban from 6am to 10am, and again from 5pm to 10pm, Mondays to Saturdays.

“The agency has yet to confirm if the policy will be enforced past the holidays. Also, while the truck ban is being reinstated to help ease traffic in the metro ahead of the Christmas rush, the number-coding scheme, which was first lifted when COVID-19 quarantine began earlier this year, remains suspended.”

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PHOTO: Google Maps, Valenzuela City on Facebook, Bong Nebrija on Facebook, Jerome Ascaño
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