BY MYLA IGLESIAS and RAYMOND AFRICA
THE toll holiday in Valenzuela City will stay until January 30 next year or until the North Luzon Expressway (NLEx) completes the upgrade of its Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system which had caused horrendous traffic in tollways.
This was the consensus between NLEx management and Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian after their two-hour meeting on Monday, which was also attended by other members of the city government, to address the glitches in the RFID system.
The two parties agreed that motorists can continue to pass freely through Valenzuela City tollways since the business permit of the private firm will remain suspended. Gatchalian temporarily cancelled the NLEx’s permit on the basis of motorist complaints over faulty RFID sensors, among others, which worsened the traffic condition in toll gates located within the boundaries of the city.
NLEx has until January 30 next year to finish the upgrade of its cashless transaction system.
“By January 30, you are to finish the upgrade of your account management system to significantly reduce all the complaints…. (when it comes to) traffic, the ball is now on your court,” Gatchalian told NLEx President Luigi Bautista.
While cashless toll transactions are suspended, cash lanes will be restored, especially with the approaching holiday season where more motorists are expected to cross boundaries to celebrate Christmas and New Year in the provinces.
Also during the meeting, NLEx management and the Valenzuela City government likewise agreed to relocate the RFID installation, and increase RFID sensor wattage from the current four watts to eight watts within two weeks. They will also sign a memorandum of agreement on consumer welfare issues.
J. Luigi Bautista, NLEx president and general manager, said after the meeting: “We appreciate that we were able to talk in this manner. We have an open discussion and we are open to talk further until we resolve this issue at the soonest time possible.”
Bautista said NLEx will reopen 15 to 20 percent of its lanes for cash payment in compliance with the government directive to address the congestion at the toll plazas.
“As an interim measure during this transition to 100 percent RFID, we will allow cash payments in all toll plazas. About 15 to 20 percent of our lanes will be cash lanes. For instance, in Balintawak, we will assign around 3 or 4 lanes for cash users,” Bautista said.
The company is also working closely with national and local government partners to quickly resolve technical and traffic concerns at the NLEx
NLEx also committed to intensify its RFID sticker replacement program as well as accelerate the customer communication campaign on reloading the RFID accounts to prevent delays at the toll gates.
Meanwhile, in smaller toll plazas where toll lanes are limited, an exclusive RFID lane beside a combined cash/RFID lane has been put up.
RFID sticker installation will no longer be done at the toll gates and were moved earlier to nearby areas inside the expressway. Motorist requests for reloading will be no longer be entertained at all toll gates, except at the major toll plazas in Balintawak and Bocaue.
Instead, motorists will be directed by NLEx RFID lane assistants to other areas where the reloading transaction can be done without blocking other motorists.
In anticipation of the traffic surges, NLEx will conduct a timed “barrier up” operation in the RFID lanes and keep the barriers raised so that RFID customers need not stop even as the RFID sensor/scanners continue to record the toll transaction.
Meanwhile, to address near term road capacity constraints, a reassessment of the Karuhatan interchange toll plaza has started and the company is expected to submit a recommendation to the Toll Regulatory Board soon.
The tollway company is also facilitating hardware and software updates as part of the ongoing regular technical review and system audit and ensure the quality of RFID stickers.
It is also intensifying its information dissemination on the sticker replacement program and reloading options via direct communication to subscribers, distributing communication materials, and posting on social media.
To better guide motorists at the toll plazas, NLEx will deploy around 270 RFID assistants equipped to handle RFID sticker scanning issues at the toll lanes with handheld RFID devices.
These RFID assistants will also guide new RFID customers on how to use the contactless Easytrip card readers, if necessary. Patrol crews and traffic marshals will likewise be fielded to manage the flow of vehicles at the plazas and interchanges.
To date, NLEx Corp. operator of North Luzon Expressway and Subic Clark Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) has an average daily RFID usage of 86 percent.
The Senate yesterday adopted a resolution urging the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and its attached agencies to suspend the implementation of its cashless transactions in all expressways while problems in the RFID remain unresolved.
“The implementation of the cashless transaction system on toll expressways caused massive traffic jams affecting thousands of stranded motorists due to various complaints like failure of scanners to read RFID stickers, delays in the reloading system of Easytrip accounts, unauthorized transactions, and other glitches that prohibits access,” the senators said in Resolution 596.
They found the response of the NLEx management to the problem lacking.
They said DOTr should suspend the cashless system until issues are resolved and the following are met: allow cash lanes in consideration to infrequent and first-time users of expressways, remove penalties for insufficient cash balances since this not a traffic violation, impose a deadline on interoperability before a deadline for cashless transaction is imposed, create a policy on dormant accounts and accumulated accounts that is expected to pile up through time, and resolve all other issues for a better cashless and contactless toll system.
“The riding public and road users must be also be given ample time to comply with the new requirements, through more accessible installation and reloading stations, transparency in fees and charges and their possible options, integrated ID for different toll highways, and enhanced awareness on the use of RFID technology,” they said.
Senate Resolution 596 was filed by Senators Grace Poe, Nancy Binay, Ralph Recto, Emmanuel Pacquiao, Imee Marcos, Ramong Revilla Jr., Ronald dela Rosa, Francis Pangilinan, Panfilo Lacson, Leila de Lima, Joel Villanueva, Juan Miguel Zubiri, Richard Gordon, Risa Hontiveros, and Sherwin Gatchalian.