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By Nikka G. Valenzuela and Mariejo Ramos

Mo­torists us­ing North Lu­zon Ex­press­way (NLEx) in Valen­zuela City re­sumed pay­ing toll on Wed­nes­day af­ter the lo­cal gov­ern­ment and the toll­way op­er­a­tor re­solved a row over how to break grid­lock on the turn­pike caused by a badly man­aged shift to elec­tronic toll col­lec­tion.

The lo­cal gov­ern­ment is­sued an or­der con­di­tion­ally lift­ing the sus­pen­sion of the busi­ness per­mit of NLEx Corp., end­ing a “toll hol­i­day” it im­posed on Dec. 7 af­ter the toll­way op­er­a­tor failed to ease conges­tion on the ex­press­way caused by mal­func­tion­ing ra­dio fre­quency iden­ti­fi­ca­tion (RFID) sen­sors and slow RFID stick­er­ing and reload­ing at toll plazas.

NLEx Corp. agreed to raise the bar­ri­ers at the toll booths from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. to al­low faster flow of ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic. For se­cu­rity, the bar­ri­ers will be low­ered from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Night­time freight traf­fic

At a meet­ing with the toll­way op­er­a­tor on Mon­day, the city gov­ern­ment pro­posed that the bar­ri­ers be re­moved to al­low free flow of traf­fic. But on Wed­nes­day, Valen­zuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian said the city gov­ern­ment agreed to the low­er­ing of the bar­ri­ers af­ter 10 p.m. be­cause con­di­tions on the ex­press­way changed with the re­turn of freight traf­fic on the road at night.

NLEx Corp. president Luigi Bautista (left) and Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian hold a dialogue on the RFID system at Valenzuela City Hall. —MARIANNE BERMUDEZ

Cash lanes

“There are big­ger trucks from Cen­tral and North­ern Lu­zon at night. We have [fewer] en­forcers dur­ing those hours so the worry is that th­ese trucks might over­load and cause ac­ci­dents [on] the toll­ways,” Gatchalian told the In­quirer in an in­ter­view.

NLEx Corp. agreed to re­in­state cash lanes at sev­eral toll plazas in the city.

In a deed of un­der­tak­ing signed by NLEx Corp. pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager Luigi Bautista, the com­pany com­mit­ted to up­grade its RFID sys­tem for real-time reload­ing, im­prove its apps and ac­count man­age­ment, stream­line its reg­is­tra­tion process by Jan. 30, 2021, and re­solve cus­tomer com­plaints, among them dis­crep­an­cies in charg­ing of ac­counts. The com­pany also said it would vol­un­tar­ily cease busi­ness op­er­a­tions should it fail to meet the un­der­tak­ing or vi­o­late mayor’s per­mit con­di­tions or other reg­u­la­tions. NLEx Corp. and the city gov­ern­ment agreed to form a tech­ni­cal work­ing group to study the open-road tolling pro­posed on Mon­day by Gatchalian, and to “in­no­vate traf­fic and ac­count man­age­ment ini­tia­tives.”

Not ready for shift

The sus­pen­sion of the com­pany’s busi­ness per­mit was lifted at noon on Wed­nes­day, break­ing a stand­off that lasted for nine days dur­ing which traf­fic on the ex­press­way moved faster with­out the bar­ri­ers and mo­torists did not have to go through trial-and-er­ror RFID read­ing at the tool booths. The Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion made the shift to elec­tronic toll col­lec­tion manda­tory start­ing Dec. 1 af­ter toll col­lec­tors caught the coro­n­avirus that causes the se­vere res­pi­ra­tory disease COVID-19.

But even af­ter years of try­ing to mod­ern­ize toll col­lec­tion, toll­way op­er­a­tors had never per­fected the sys­tem and the chaos on the ex­press­ways that came with the Dec. 1 im­po­si­tion showed that the coun­try was not ready for the shift.

The Se­nate pub­lic ser­vices com­mit­tee opens an in­quiry into the mat­ter on Thurs­day.

IN PHOTO: photo taken on Dec. 8, mo­torists drive freely through the toll plaza on Min­danao Av­enue where a “toll hol­i­day” de­clared by Valen­zuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian af­ter sus­pend­ing the busi­ness per­mit of the toll­way op­er­a­tor for fail­ure to break grid­lock on North Lu­zon Ex­press­way keeps the bar­ri­ers up. The op­er­a­tor got its per­mit back on Wed­nes­day af­ter agree­ing to solve prob­lems with its elec­tronic toll col­lec­tion sys­tem.

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