Toll board puts rebate bid on hold
The Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) on Thursday decided not to take action for the meantime on the proposal to cut by P44 the amount paid by motorists taking the clogged northbound portion of South Luzon Expressway (SLEx) in Muntinlupa City until its petitioner could provide a “very clear legal basis” for the reduction.
Raymundo Junia, the petitioner and private sector representative on the five-member board, is now planning to file another motion seeking penalties for SLEx toll operator San Miguel Corp. (SMC) “for the carmageddon that happened on Sept. 25 and 26.”
The TRB is chaired by Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade. Its members are Public Works Secretary Mark Villar,
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia.
It was the TRB technical working group headed by Junia that came up with the proposed P44 cut to the toll.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting of the board, TRB spokesperson Julius Corpuz said the board did not reject outright Junia’s petition for a P44 rebate to inconvenienced motorists.
Most affected stretch
If approved, motorists will have to pay only P5 for the northbound 8.3-kilometer stretch between Susana Heights and Sucat exits, both in Muntinlupa.
This stretch is most affected by gridlock that worsened after the closure of the outermost lane of SLEx, just after the Alabang viaduct, starting Sept. 24 to give way to the P10-billion Skyway extension project.
An adjacent lane of the two-lane east service road was also closed.
On Sept. 26, for instance, residents of southern Metro Manila and those from Laguna, Cavite, Batangas and other provinces in southern Luzon were caught in a carmageddon on SLEx that backed up vehicular traffic 24 km—from Alabang to the Eton exit in Santa Rosa City, Laguna.
Junia said the toll reduction was intended to penalize SMC Tollways for the daily kilometers-long traffic on the expressway because of the construction of the Skyway extension project.
Unclear legal basis
The legal basis for it was not clear, however, Corpuz said.
“[T]his is the first time, if ever, that we would be penalizing a concessionaire for road works meant to improve the safety and convenience of the expressway,” the TRB spokesperson said.
The board also instructed SMC to implement the various traffic mitigating measures under its traffic management plan “so that the inconvenience experienced by our motorists … will be minimized.”
This includes, among other things, fast-tracking the construction work from six to two-and-a-half months, and reopening by Dec. 1 the third lane on the northbound section of SLEx just after the Alabang viaduct.
SMC is also expected to build a ramp along the east service road going to Skyway to help decongest SLEx, Corpuz added.
“Traffic congestion is inevitable,” he said. “Keeping it to a minimum is our function now.”
While promising to review his motion again, Junia said he was encouraging affected commuters to “go to the regular courts” to seek damages from SMC Tollways.
This was not to say that he was giving up on the petition in the TRB, he said.
No performance indicators
But he lamented that the concession agreements signed between SMC and the government “did not have key performance indicators … from where we can say you are at default or that there is something wrong.”
This meant that, while SMC is expected to maintain a certain standard of service for operating a toll expressway, the lack of such standard “would make it seem like they have not violated anything,” Junia said.
“Unfortunately, the contracts are loaded against the commuters,” he added. “And maybe that is something that cannot be addressed by the TRB alone. They might have to seek legal remedy elsewhere.”
As for his upcoming petition seeking damages from SMC, Junia said this was meant to keep the operator on its toes and ensure that a carmageddon would never happen again.
SMC president Ramon Ang has rejected toll cuts at SLEx, saying these were unwarranted and would erode investor confidence in the conglomerate.
Ang has called the proposal to reduce the toll a knee-jerk reaction to the severe traffic congestion, which he earlier described as “slight inconvenience.”
But he has apologized to the public for the vehicular congestion that worsened because of the Skyway extension project. He gave assurance that traffic flow would return to normal by Dec. 1.
SMC is building an additional 4-km elevated highway from Barangay Cupang to Barangay Putatan, which will run parallel to both sides of SLEx to ease the traffic gridlock on the Alabang viaduct.
Expected to be finished by December 2020, the project will add capacity for 4,500 vehicles per hour on the northbound side and 3,000 more vehicles per hour on the southbound section.
TRB data as of June showed that at least 370,000 vehicles use SLEx every day, while around 196,000 take Skyway daily.
Class 1 vehicles, which include cars and jeepneys, pay P214 for the end-to-end use of SLEx from Calamba to Magallanes, while Class 2 vehicles, such as medium-sized delivery trucks, are charged P429.
Container trucks and buses under Class 3 pay P644.
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