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CENTER OF LEGAL BATTLE: Aerial shot of the South Luzon Expressway’s toll gate. INQUIRER PHOTO





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Petition against toll hike thrown out

By Marlon Ramos, Paolo Montecillo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:18:00 11/29/2010

Filed Under: Legal issues, Investments, Infrastructure, Road Transport, Government Contracts

MANILA, Philippines?The Supreme Court has thrown out Albay Gov. Joey Salceda?s petition questioning the authority of the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) to approve the 250-percent toll rate increase in the South Luzon Expressway (SLEx) from Alabang, Muntinlupa, to Calamba, Laguna.

?Wherefore, the petition ? is hereby dismissed for lack of merit. Accordingly, the TRO (temporary restraining order) issued by the court ? with respect to this petition is hereby ordered lifted,? the court said in a Nov. 23 resolution.

The change in rates following the court?s decision may have to wait until late this month or early next year, the TRB and SLEx operator said Sunday.

While dismissing the Salceda petition, the high court did not rule on the immediate implementation of the toll increase.

Instead, the magistrates reiterated their position in the previous ruling on four similar petitions remanding to the TRB the issue of ?propriety and reasonableness? of the toll increase in SLEx.

?Pursuant to our ruling in Francisco Jr. vs the (TRB et al.) the toll rates assailed in the instant petition? have already been remanded to the (TRB) for its review of the reasonableness thereof,? the court said in its decision.

The Supreme Court then directed the TRB to determine if the Malaysian contractor and toll operator, South Luzon Toll Corp. (SLTC), and subsidiary Manila Toll Expressway Systems Inc. (MATES) were ?entitled? to ask for an increase in toll rates.

SLTC claims to have lost close to P1 billion in foregone revenue due to its inability to raise toll rates at SLEx. The firm wants to raise rates at SLEx by 250 percent to help recover the P14 billion it spent to rehabilitate and extend the superhighway.

SLTC?s case has become a source of embarrassment for the administration, which is trying its best to attract foreigners to invest in the country?s infrastructure sector.

Earlier this month, President Benigno Aquino III said the government would protect investors from the same legal issues faced by SLTC.

New set of rates

The TRB said SLTC would have to apply for a new set of rates for the recently completed road 7.5-kilometer link between SLEx and the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road (STAR) known as Toll Road Project 3 (TR3).

?When the new rates were approved, it did not include toll for TR3 yet so I think they might have to apply again,? TRB spokesperson Julius Corpuz said Sunday.

He said this would require the SLTC to publish the new set of rates anew. Any change in toll will take effect 15 days after publication.

TR3 opening

SLTC president Isaac David welcomed the news, but said the new rates may not be implemented right away.

?It could take until early next year,? he said.

But David said the company may choose to open TR3, which has been kept closed because there were no approved rates for it, before Christmas to allow motorists to enjoy the benefits of the new road.

TR3 will let motorists go directly from SLEx to STAR without having to pass through congested national roads, which can take hours depending to traffic.

?I?ll try to convince my principals to approve the opening of TR3 next month, as long as we can get the assurance that we will be able to raise rates soon,? David said.

SLTC is the local subsidiary of Malaysian conglomerate MTD Capital Berhad.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted and granted six other pending motions for compliance regarding the case.

3 Marcos edicts

In his petition dated June 22, Salceda accused the TRB of violating certain provisions of three Marcos-era edicts pertaining to the operation of toll roads in the country.

The former economic adviser of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo claimed that the TRB committed grave abuse of discretion when it allowed the fixing of toll rates under its Supplemental Toll Operation Agreement (STOA) with SLTC.

Salceda added that the proposed toll increase was ?unconscionable and exorbitant.?

Constitutional

In its Oct. 19 decision, the high court en banc upheld the constitutionality of the STOAs which the TRB entered into with the private operators of SLEx, North Luzon Expressway and the elevated toll road Skyway.

However, the tribunal declared as void and unconstitutional the TRB decision to extend for another 30 years the private contractor?s contract to operate SLEx.

It described as illegal the STOA provision allowing the private contractor to demand payment from the government should the proposed toll hikes are not implemented promptly.

The court then declined to discuss Salceda?s petition, saying it was not yet ?ripe for adjudication.?

In its latest ruling, the high court said the TRB had the authority to approve initial toll rates even without conducting a public hearing.

?But as clarified in the tollway decision ? an interested party, such as an expressway user, is not without recourse, as said party may file a petition before the TRB assailing the propriety of the said initial toll rates,? the tribunal said.



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