100% CASHLESS SUSPENDED: No easy route to digital toll system

    Smooth traffic. This was how the toll plaza in Valenzuela City looked like on Dec. 8, 2020 day after its mayor Rex Gatchalian suspended the business permit of NLEX Corp. due to the long queues and congestion caused by its RFID toll collection system. (Photo by MANOLET SANTIAGO)

    The country’s migration to a digital toll road system has been a priority to curb the spread of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) virus but technology readiness remained a challenge as this required toll operators to upgrade their systems to ensure smooth traffic flow in the toll plazas.

    Real- time re-loading, defective sensors, upgrade of hardware and software systems, including data transmission and procurement of good quality stickers, were just among the technical issues that the toll operators had to meet, according to Toll Regulatory Board (TRB).

    But the short time within which toll operators were given to meet the deadline to go cashless was also a big hurdle.

    With this, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) yesterday suspended the full implementation of cashless toll collection system barely two weeks after it rolled out to resolve issues that caused congestion at toll roads.

    Abraham Sales, TRB executive director, said DOTr Secretary Arthur Tugade has allowed toll operators to continue using cash lane as part of measures aimed at shortening the queues at the toll entrances and exits.

    TRB proposals

    Another measure put on the table is the removal of the “emergency” signages, and convert these toll plaza lanes to either “Cash” or “RFID” (radio frequency identification) lanes. Ambulances, law enforcement vehicles, and other emergency response vehicles will be allowed to pass through any lane.

    Another recommendation is the removal of barriers at the toll plazas during peak/rush hours to allow fast entry and movement of vehicles.

    The TRB said RFID and cash lanes will be positioned in clusters to avoid confusion.

    To reduce queuing, TRB said RFID installation sites at toll plazas should be removed. Stickering and reloading will be relocated in gasoline stations, malls, groceries, and other places frequented by motorists.

    For small tollgates with two to three lanes, RFID stickering lanes will be removed, and a cash lane will also maintained.

    Meanwhile, TRB said NLEX Corp., operator of the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) has been instructed to consider increasing RFID sensor wattage from only 3 to 10 watts to improve sensor readability, within 15 days from Dec. 9, 2020.

    Further, the TRB asked NLEX Corp. to reassess the configuration of Karuhatan toll plaza in Valenzuela, considered a high traffic area, and submit a recommendation at the soonest time possible.

    To help resolve general issues, DOTr also recommended the following: enhancement of a traffic management and customer service assistance at toll plazas and approaches; intensified campaign and implementation of replacement of worn-out tags; expedite system’s hardware and software upgrading including data transmission and procurement of good quality RFID stickers; and enhancement of information to motorists to maintain sufficient load to avoid loading at the toll plazas.

    Response to senators

    These recommendations also form part of the DOTr’s response to senators who earlier suggested the suspension of the implementation of its cashless toll collection system while the agency and private toll operators work out solutions related to the unclear and ill-prepared regulations of the program.

    Grace Poe, chair of the Senate committee on transportation, earlier said Tugade also owes senators an explanation for his agency’s rushed order to expressway operators to start the implementation of the cashless toll collection beginning this month despite their obvious unpreparedness for it.

    The senator has filed a resolution asking the DOTr to revisit the order. A similar resolution was filed by Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian.

    Valenzuela City earlier suspended the business permit of NLEX Corp. because of the traffic caused by its RFID system.

    With the new directives from DOTr, NLEX Corp. said there will be cash lane starting today, December 14, in Balintawak, Bocaue, Valenzuela Local Government unit covered plazas, Tabang and Sta. Rita toll plazas.

    All toll plazas will have cash lanes starting Wednesday, December 16, according to NLEX Corp., which also operates Subic Clark-Tarlac Expressway.

    Expressways operated by San Miguel Corp. will also have cash lanes in toll plazas as it earlier asked government for extension to maintain cash lane until February.

    Julius Corpuz, TRB spokesperson, said the agency will allow operations of cash lanes until January 11, and will assess this thereafter.

    90% cashless

    To date, TRB said more than 90 percent of transactions in the country’s toll roads were through RFID sticker use as a result of the implementation of the cashless transaction since December 1.

    As of December 8, based on the AutoSweep and Easytrip daily report, more than 3.7 million RFID stickers have been installed, compared to 1.4 million when the program just started.

    The TRB chief also noted the number of motorists queuing daily for RFID installation is decreasing, from over 34,000 on December 1 to less than 28,000 on December 8.

    To recall, the tollway operators were given until November 2 to implement cashless transactions at tollways. This was moved to December 1 to give motorists ample time to have RFID stickers installed.

    To ensure efficient implementation, the DOTr-TRB set a transition period until Jan. 11, 2021, with no fines and penalties to be imposed on motorists without vehicle RFID. Further, RFID installation will continue beyond January 11 for non-frequent tollway users. Toll load will have no validity expiration.

    Interoperability a go

    By 2021, the government will implement the second phase of the toll interoperability which will make a single RFID sticker readable by sensors at different toll roads.

    SMC TPLEX Corp. Metro Pacific Tollways Corp. and its unit NLEX Corp. have signed the memorandum of agreement to jointly test the use of AutoSweep and EasyTrip RFID cashless toll payments when passing through SMC’s Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway and NLEX and SCTEX.

    Sales said TRB will proceed with the implementation on the second phase of interoperability after a test run in January.

    The full interoperability is being discussed among the toll operators as this would require adjustments on the hardware, capital expenditures and the setting up of a clearing house.