ICYMI: New NLEX RFID installation sites, Petron refinery shutdown, face shields for cyclists

2020 continues to throw us curveballs
by TopGear.com.ph | Dec 20, 2020
PHOTO: NLEX Corporation, Petron Corporation, Jerome Ascaño, Google Maps

Valenzuela City once again allows NLEX toll fees to be collected within its jurisdiction

“The Valenzuela City local government and NLEX Corporation have finally come to an agreement regarding the latter’s RFID woes and suspended business permit in the city.

“On December 16, Valenzuela City announced that North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) tollbooth barriers within its jurisdiction will remain raised, but that the operator will now be permitted to collect toll fees. This policy will be in effect from 5am to 10pm daily, and barriers will be lowered from 10:01pm to 4:59am for safety reasons.

“Besides adjusted barrier protocols, Valenzuela City says cash lanes are also making a comeback at strategic locations and toll plazas. It added that the NLEX Corporation will conduct an ‘RFID system and account management upgrade’ to resolve consumer complaints on or before January 30 next year.

“Lastly, Valenzuela City and the NLEX Corporation have formed a technical working group to ‘continuously meet to innovate traffic and account management initiatives.’ If the company fails to comply with the abovementioned conditions, it will result in another business permit suspension.”

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Here are the latest operational changes that are meant to improve the RFID situation on NLEX

“In its latest release, NLEX Corporation said it has ‘carried out improvements in its operations to provide convenience to motorists this holiday season and during this transition to cashless toll payments.’ Here are all the measures being undertaken by the company:

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  1. Reopening of cash lanes. ‘About 15 to 20% of our lanes will be cash lanes,’ said NLEX Corporation president and general manager J. Luigi Bautista. ‘For instance, in Balintawak, we will assign around three or four lanes for cash users.’ Now that cash lanes have been reopened, emergency lanes, where they are available, will be accepting toll payments in cash, while at smaller toll plazas, there will be a cash/RFID lane beside a dedicated RFID lane.
  2. Implementation of ‘timed barrier up’ operation. In the coming days, the expressway will have a ‘timed barrier up’ operation in RFID lanes. This means the barriers will remain raised and RFID sensors will continue to record toll transactions as vehicles drive through without stopping. In theory, the onus should be on the tollway operator to get its sensors in faultless firing order so as not to miss out on collecting toll fees. In practice...easier said than done, but let’s see how it turns out.
  3. Relocation of RFID installation and reloading. Where before, motorists could apply for Easytrip RFID stickers at NLEX tollbooths, they will now be directed to RFID installation areas—check out the updated locations here. Reloading at tollbooths will no longer be allowed, too, except at the major toll plazas in Balintawak and Bocaue. Again, existing Easytrip users wanting to reload their accounts on the spot will be directed to other areas where they can be accommodated without hindering the flow of traffic. Better yet, you can reload your Easytrip account before your trip—here’s our handy guide for details.
  4. Deployment of RFID assistants. Around 270 RFID assistants equipped with handheld scanners will be deployed within the NLEX network to facilitate scanning at toll plazas. They will be aided in traffic management by patrol crews and marshals.
  5. Carrying out technical improvements to the RFID system. According to Bautista, the company is ‘looking at increasing the RFID sensors’ wattage at the toll lanes, and is currently in discussions with the National Telecommunications Commission.’ Hardware and software updates are also in the works, as are improved information campaigns to update motorists on the sticker replacement program for faulty Easytrip tags. Finally, a ‘reassessment of the Karuhatan interchange toll plaza is ongoing,’ to improve road capacity in the area.
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“‘We are committed to continuously look for ways to improve our service to the public—providing reliable, safe, and convenient expressway travel experience to our motorists, host communities, and other stakeholders,’ Bautista said.”

SMC is rolling out more RFID installation sites, too

“The San Miguel Corporation (SMC) is cranking up RFID operations leading up to 2021. Just over the past two weeks, the company has opened 42 new installation stations in addition to the 53 it had as of November 2020.

“The current total number of operational installation stations now sits at 95. Most of these are scattered throughout expressways under SMC management, namely: South Luzon Expressway (SLEX), Skyway, NAIA Expressway (NAIAX), Tarlac–Pangasinan–La Union Expressway (TPLEX), and Southern Tagalog Arterial Road (STAR Tollway).

“SMC hopes to have 156 RFID installation stations up and running before the end of the year. In a statement, SMC head Ramon S. Ang assured motorists that the tollway operator is on track to deliver on its promise to open 100 new installation sites: ‘In fact, it will be a little more than that. Our bulk orders of RFID tags from abroad have been arriving as scheduled, so we’ve also been able to gradually open more stations—42 new ones as of last count.’

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“‘An additional 61 outlets, mostly off-site, are in process and we will open all of these by end of December.’

“Ang added that the decision to open the remaining 61 installation stations outside of expressways was made to entice non-frequent users to get RFIDs. These will be set up at gas stations, transport terminals, malls, and other public areas, as well as government facilities.

“He also pointed out that one cash lane will remain per toll plaza so that motorists who enter SMC expressways without an RFID can still pay in cash and have one stickered on.”

Are we going to see a shake-up in the TRB leadership soon?

“In a press conference held on December 17, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque relayed president Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to sack officials of the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) over the chaotic implementation of 100% RFID transactions on our nation’s expressways.

“‘Nagpahayag din ang Presidente ng kanyang banta na sisibakin ang mga opisyal ng Toll Regulatory Board dahil sa gulo sa RFID,’ Roque said.

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“The official also shared what the government has instructed both tollway operators and the TRB to do in light of the confusion surrounding RFIDs. Frankly, though, some of the instructions are pretty vague, if not already being implemented by expressway operators.”

So what happens to the tollbooth employees affected by the shift to automated toll collection?

“There’s one thing we may have been missing in the midst of all the RFID drama: the possible displacement of tollway personnel.

“In a Senate hearing on December 17, both MPTC and SMC were asked regarging tollbooth workers who are affected by the shift to automated toll-collection systems—700 employees for MPTC and around 2,000 for SMC. The two tollway operators gave assurance that their employee structures will be reorganized accordingly, and the affected employees will be properly taken care of and compensated.

“‘What we are prioritizing now is the retraining of our employees who will be affected by the removal of cash transactions in our toll plazas,’ said MPTC president and CEO Rodrigo Franco. ‘Nag-umpisa na tayo dito to retool their skills, to enable them to transition to other jobs, not only within NLEX but within the entire Metro Pacific group.

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“‘Ang assurance po ng grupo namin ay kung meron man na maaaring hindi ma-accommodate sa bagong positions, they will get far more than what is required under the law. We will make sure that they are happy with their situation.’

“Said SMC government relations unit head Atty. Melissa Encanto-Tagarda: ‘They will be moved to other functions, or other projects or if they prefer to leave the company because of the change they will also be accorded the same as provided for by the law.’”

Looks like the DOTr’s idea of ‘100% cashless’ tollways isn’t, uh, 100% cashless, after all...

“During the December 17 Senate hearing, DOTr head Arthur Tugade was asked by Senator Nancy Binay what the final target of the agency really is: ‘What is the end goal? Is the end goal to be 100% cashless?’

“According to Tugade, yes, ‘at a certain point in time,’ expressways will be 100% cashless.  The official added that if what was agreed upon with operators goes according to plan, this will be achieved around the middle of 2021.

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“‘Yes, madam senator. At a certain point in time. Ang habol ko ho diyan, kung susundin yung mga usap-usapan with the service providers, mga middle of next year ma-achieve ho iyan,’ Tugade said, pointing out that both SMC and NLEX Corporation are already working on achieving full interoperability.

“Senator Grace Poe later followed up Binay’s question about achieving 100% cashless transactions by asking whether or not any cash booths will be retained. Tugade replied in the affirmative, saying the DOTr will always allow cash payments.

“‘Kung sinabi natin 100% cashless, we will always allow the avenue of having a cash booth for emergencies,’ Tugade responded. ‘We have to provide for emergencies like that.’

“‘Yung emergency ho, halimbawa nandoon at walang RFID, at pwedeng pumayag, eh dapat mayroon booth dun na i-allow for a cash transaction. Makikita ho nila yung daloy ng trapiko sa RFID mabilis, pero mag-aantay ho sila kasi emergency. Ganun po yun,’ Tugade added when asked to define what an emergency vehicle is.

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“Okay...so, what can we take in here? Two things: that 100% cashless toll payments should be a thing by mid-2021...and cash payments will still be allowed in some cases. Come to think of it, is it really 100% cashless, then?”

Even the MMDA is feeling the holiday spirit

“Two elderly riders were taught a lesson by Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) personnel over the weekend for wearing unauthorized helmets, but not in the way you might expect. Instead of handing them tickets and fines, the MMDA enforcers gave them brand-new helmets to use.

MMDA traffic chief Bong Nebrija took to Facebook to share the new initiative: ‘We flagged down two PWDs riding in tandem with unauthorized helmets, an elderly couple to claim disability from SSS both with unauthorized helmets, and a pregnant woman back riding with her husband on their way for a prenatal checkup with the wife wearing an unauthorized helmet. All of them benefited this morning and received new sets of authorized helmets.’

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“Under general community quarantine guidelines, riders are only allowed to wear helmets will full-face visors. Besides this, you obviously want to go for products built to withstand the worst gravity has to throw at you in the event of an accident.”

Booking a ride or delivery rider in Pasig? Make use of the city’s free public Wi-Fi

Pasig City mayor Vico Sotto has announced that free GoWiFi and KonekTayo Wi-Fi connections are now available in public places like City Hall, as well as some plazas and public hospitals, with more locations to follow soon.

“According to Sotto, the new Internet services are in partnership with Globe, and that the reason connections are so spotty in some areas of Pasig City is red tape. He added that Globe officials themselves pointed this out during meetings with the local government.

“‘We’ve been working hard for the LGU to become more business-friendly by streamlining processes (especially for permits). Fighting corruption also plays a big part in this,’ Sotto said on social media.

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“‘Dahil dito, maaasahan niyo ang mas malakas na partnership ng LGU sa private sector...at maaasahan niyo ring palakas nang palakas ang signal at internet sa Pasig sa darating na mga taon.’”

Funding for the 5km EDSA Greenways covered walkways has been approved

“The Asian Development Bank has approved a $123 million (P5.91 billion) loan for the construction of safe and disaster-resilient elevated walkways on EDSA to make Metro Manila’s main highway pedestrian-friendly.

“The EDSA Greenways Project consists of 5km of covered walkways that will link mass-transit stations along EDSA, namely, Balintawak, Cubao, Guadalupe, and Taft stations. The structures will be five meters wide, and will have elevators and monitoring systems. The goal is to make it accessible to all pedestrians—the elderly, pregnant women, young children, and people with disabilities included.

“The project will also be supported by a loan of $15 million (P720.5 million) from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Catalytic Green Finance Facility. The loan will be administered by the ADB.

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“‘The EDSA Greenways Project is an integral part of the government’s transport strategy to make Metro Manila a better place to live, work, and visit,’ said ADB Southeast Asia transport and communications director Hiroaki Yamaguchi. ‘This project is an important part of our contribution to helping make that vision a reality for Filipinos.’

“The project will support the National Capital Region’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, as it’s expected to generate jobs during the construction period, with P3 billion to be spent on materials. The civil works contracts for the project are expected to be awarded during the first half of 2021. Construction will cause minimal traffic disruptions, with an international consulting firm working on a feasibility study with the Department of Transportation, funded by the ADB’s Infrastructure Preparation and Innovation Facility.”

A new House Bill tackles the ‘rights and responsibilities’ of cyclists

“Just last week, Las Piñas representative Camille Villar filed House Bill No. 8156, or the Bicycle Act of 2020.

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According to The Manila Times, it contains many of the provisions filed by her father Manny Villar when he was a senator back in 2011. Among these is the establishment of a Local Bikeways Office (LBO), an agency under the city or municipality’s engineering office that will implement the rules and regulations of the Bicycle Act. The LBO will also be in charge of setting up bikeways on all major roads and highways.

“‘With bikes becoming more in-demand and physical distancing dictating social norms, a policy on bicycle and cyclists should now figure prominently in the government’s current and post-pandemic planning,’ Villar wrote in her explanatory notes.

“The proposed bill outlines the ‘rights and responsibilities’ of bikers. Based on the provisions reported in the Times, Manila Bulletin, and Advocates, a biker is expected to:

  • Wear a helmet at all times, where the chin strap is securely fastened
  • Know (and use) left- and right-turn hand signals
  • Equip the bike with reflective materials when riding at night
  • Stick to the appropriate speed
  • Obey all traffic rules and regulations
  • Not ride on crosswalks or sidewalks, but only on bikeways
  • Not cling to another vehicle
  • Not carry more riders than the bike was designed for, unless they’re on a towed seat or trailer
  • Not carry anything on the bike unless it’s on installed baskets, bags, racks, or trailers
  • Not park in non-designated areas
  • Not modify the bike in such a way that your handlebars are higher than your shoulders
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“Villar’s bill joins the raft of proposed bike legislation and regulation floated across this tumultuous year. These include Pia Cayetano’s Senate Bill No. 1518, or the Safe Pathways Act, which called for the setting up of pop-up bicycle lanes and emergency pathways across the country. Villar’s mother, Senator Cynthia Villar, questioned Cayetano’s proposal back in August, saying that ‘our roads are not perfect. We do not have enough space.’”

Speaking of cyclists, the government is now requiring you to wear face shields on the road

“In case you missed it, the government announced a few days ago that the use of face shields in all public places—even outside of malls or other establishments—is now mandatory. What some of you may have missed, though, is that the rule applies even to cyclists and joggers.

In an interview with CNN Philippines, Joint Task Force COVID Shield commander Cesar Binag said that the required use of face shields outside of residences applies to everyone: ‘Ang general rule kasi, outside residence, dapat mayroon. So mag-stick tayo sa general rule na yun. Kasi ang nagsabi niyan is [Department of Health], kami naman is taga-enforce lang. Pag binago ng IATF yan, eh di susundan din namin yun.’

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“That means whether you’re going out for a quick run or you’re actually trying to get to or from work via your bicycle, you now have to wear face shields.”

Petron confirms shutdown of Bataan refinery

“News of the Petron Bataan Refinery shutdown last came about when a statement from San Miguel Corporation president and CEO Ramon S. Ang surfaced on cyberspace. In the said statement, Ang supposedly mentioned its ‘180,000 barrel-per-day refinery’ would have to close down ‘starting January.’

“Now, the company has confirmed the statement through a disclosure issued to the Philippine Stock Exchange.

“Petron’s disclosure reads: ‘We confirm that the statements above were made by Mr. Ramon S. Ang, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Company. We further confirm that the Company will suspend operations at its Petron Bataan Refinery in Limay, Bataan beginning the second half of January 2021 to minimize losses in view of weak refining margins.’

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“The company’s disclosure also confirms that there will be maintenance activities conducted during the temporary shutdown, and that there will be no shortage of fuel supply for this duration. However, it did not give out a potential timeline on when it plans to resume the Bataan refinery operations. It is expected to do so ‘if and when the economy improves.’

“You may recall that earlier this year, Pilipinas Shell Petroleum also suspended the operations of its Tabangao refinery due to the low fuel demand brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, in August, the company announced that it will permanently shut down the said refinery.”

Two EDSA U-turn slots in Quezon City have been reopened

“A couple of weeks ago, the agency announced the closure of the U-turn slot near General Malvar/Bagong Barrio, but immediately retracted its statement and postponed the closure to January 4, 2021. Now, it’s reopening two EDSA U-turn slots in Quezon City.

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“This was confirmed by the QC local government unit via its Facebook page. “The reopening of the Quezon City Academy and Dario Bridge U-turn slots took effect on December 18.

“The Quezon City Academy U-turn slot shall not be used by vehicles coming from Misamis Street, the SM North EDSA Annex, Nueva Ecija Street, and other establishments in the immediate vicinity of these areas. It shall also not be used by vehicles heading to Corregidor Street and Bansalangin Street.

“The Dario Bridge U-turn slot, meanwhile, shall be for the exclusive use of emergency and marked government vehicles.”

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PHOTO: NLEX Corporation, Petron Corporation, Jerome Ascaño, Google Maps
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