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Un­til I can get an Au­tosweep RFID sticker for the South Lu­zon Ex­press­way (SLEx), I have re­solved to skip any trip south of Metro Manila. My week­end flights from pan­demic house ar­rest will hence­forth be en­tirely north­ward. I de­cided to pri­or­i­tize se­cur­ing the Easytrip RFID be­cause I have al­ways felt more at ease nav­i­gat­ing the stretches of the North Lu­zon Ex­press­way (NLEx) and the Su­bic-Clark-Tar­lac Ex­press­way (SCTEx).

I had pre­vi­ously lined up to get the Au­tosweep sticker for SLEx. But, on the day I tried, when it was my turn, I found out that I couldn’t be served with­out an ap­point­ment booked on­line. Back in my car, I im­me­di­ately went on­line to make an ap­point­ment only to learn that all slots for the weeks ahead had been taken, and that I must check again later. I just gave up.

In com­par­i­son, get­ting the Easytrip RFID tag for NLEx was bear­able, which is not to say it was more ef­fi­cient. Weeks be­fore the old EC tags were to be de­com­mis­sioned, I du­ti­fully vis­ited the NLEx cus­tomer ser­vice cen­ter in San Fer­nando, Pampanga, to have mine re­placed with new RFID stick­ers and to have the un­spent load in them trans­ferred. To my dis­may, I wasn’t even al­lowed to en­ter, be­cause while I had a face mask on I didn’t have a face shield. I didn’t in­sist, think­ing this might be a sign I was be­ing spared from a pos­si­ble coro­n­avirus in­fec­tion. A sym­pa­thetic guard of­fered to give me the forms to fill out and to re­turn an­other day.

In the mean­time, I heard that RFID stick­ers were ac­tu­ally be­ing sold on­line. In­deed, Shopee car­ried them. What a find, I told my­self. But, to my dis­ap­point­ment, the seller of Easytrip RFIDs had prac­ti­cally closed shop, with a cryp­tic note: out of stock. Generic “RFID” stick­ers were be­ing sold cheap in batches of five by other sell­ers. I was cer­tain th­ese would not work at the toll booths, but I could imag­ine that oth­ers might try stick­ing th­ese on their ve­hi­cles.

One or­di­nary week­day, I made an early trip go­ing north on my big bike and chanced upon a very short queue for RFID stick­ers at a gas sta­tion. In­cred­u­lous, I im­me­di­ately joined the line, and, af­ter a brief wait, I got my sticker in less than 5 min­utes. Buoyed by this suc­cess, I con­vinced my daugh­ter Kara and her hus­band LM to try the RFID booth at the Petron gas sta­tion in Mar­i­lao, where they were greeted by a long snaking line. They de­cided to pro­ceed to the San Fer­nando cus­tomer ser­vice cen­ter, bring­ing with them three ex­tra forms for one more bike and two other ve­hi­cles, with their cor­re­spond­ing OR/CRs.

That at­tempt yielded no pos­i­tive re­sult. They were told that mul­ti­ple RFID ap­pli­ca­tions were no longer ac­cepted un­less the ve­hi­cles were ac­tu­ally there. The NLEx staff now in­sist on stick­ing the RFID strip them­selves and test­ing it on site. On see­ing Kara’s SUV, they told her that the avail­able RFID stick­ers did not work on some car mod­els be­cause of metal sur­face in­ter­fer­ence, and that, un­for­tu­nately, her KIA Sportage was one of them.

Yet, on a chance visit to an RFID in­stalling booth in a gas sta­tion, the staff saw no prob­lem in­stalling the Easytrip tag on the same ve­hi­cle. As though some­one had worked a mir­a­cle on the car, the sticker could be de­tected and read with­out a prob­lem.

It be­came clear to me that the switch to the RFID cash­less pay­ment sys­tem man­dated by the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion for the two toll­way op­er­a­tors—San Miguel Corp. and Metro Pa­cific Toll­ways Corp.—had not been thor­oughly thought out. The sys­tem bore the marks of cease­less im­pro­vi­sa­tion, de­spite the fact that RFID tags had been in use by both com­pa­nies for many years now. It was ev­i­dent that nei­ther com­pany had taken the trou­ble to learn from the old sys­tem, or to test and eval­u­ate the new one be­fore rolling it out for com­pul­sory im­ple­men­ta­tion. They also ap­pear not in any hurry to in­te­grate their re­spec­tive RFID sys­tems into one.

The long con­fus­ing lines at the Bo­caue toll booths on the Manila-bound side of the NLEx I en­coun­tered last Wed­nes­day abun­dantly demon­strated to me what was hap­pen­ing. All the avail­able RFID lanes were open, yet the traf­fic was barely mov­ing. Ahead, I no­ticed that the bar would lift up for one or two ve­hi­cles, and then it would stay in place again for some min­utes. This was hap­pen­ing in all the other lanes. Iron­i­cally, the faster lanes were the few “emer­gency” cash lanes that were still open.

Clearly, the RFID an­ten­nas weren’t con­sis­tently pick­ing up or read­ing the sig­nal from the RFID stick­ers. There are any num­ber of pos­si­ble rea­sons for this. One, some RFID stick­ers are not valid Easytrip stick­ers. Two, they may be valid stick­ers, but their be­ing at­tached to a ve­hi­cle’s metal el­e­ments found on some head­lights and the tint on wind­shields ef­fec­tively “de­tunes” them. Three, the RFID strips them­selves or the de­tec­tion de­vices are of such poor qual­ity or type that their trans­mis­sion range is very lim­ited. Or, four, the UHF or mi­crowave sig­nal in some zones is weak or un­even.

What­ever the cause may be, the log­jam of ve­hi­cles at the ex­press­way toll booths is symp­to­matic of a per­va­sive cul­ture of thought­less dis­re­gard for the wel­fare of or­di­nary cit­i­zens. We Filipinos have learned not to ex­pect much from gov­ern­ment, and have turned in­creas­ingly to pri­vate en­ti­ties for the things we need even if we have to pay ex­tra for th­ese ser­vices.

But, now, some pri­vate com­pa­nies are start­ing to act more and more like the public cor­po­ra­tions they have re­placed. Se­cure in their mo­nop­o­lis­tic grip on busi­nesses like toll­ways, they of­ten man­i­fest the same in­dif­fer­ence to the trou­bles and in­con­ve­nience that their in­com­pe­tence in­flicts on the gen­eral public.

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