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By  Miguel R. Camus 

A row erupted between conglomerate San Miguel Corp. (SMC) and the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) over the regulator’s “inaction” on the SMC petition to collect any toll and a disagreement on completion milestones of the massive Skyway Stage 2 elevated expressway in Metro Manila.

This culminated in SMC unit Skyway O&M Corp. announcing on Twitter late evening on Monday  (March 15) that it would indefinitely close the Skyway 3 until it met government requirements, surprising thousands of motorists, who use the expressway, and even the TRB, which had been blamed for issuing the directive to the conglomerate.

SMC recalled the announcement on Tuesday (March 16) before implementing the closure, branding the incident as a “misunderstanding” while scoring the TRB for stopping the collection of toll because SMC has yet to hit its target completion level for Skyway 3.

At the same time, TRB spokesman Julius Corpus denied that the board issued a closure directive and said Skyway 3 should remain open to serve motorists.  A TRB member said the collection of toll would be taken up at a meeting next week.

SMC president Ramon S. Ang said on Tuesday that losses have been mounting “because TRB keeps delaying the start of toll collection.”

“We need sufficient funds for the toll road’s daily maintenance, proper long-term upkeep and to keep it safe and efficient for the motoring public,” Ang said in a statement, adding he had explained the situation to Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade.

Ang said the P80 billion project was fully financed by SMC and requires P10 billion a year to operate.

The Skyway 3 has been partially operational since the middle of 2019 and eventually had its soft opening on Dec. 29, 2020, when SMC promised to waive fees for a month. The toll road, which serves about 60,000 motorists per day, was inaugurated by President Rodrigo Duterte last Jan. 14.

Upon inauguration, the full stretch from Buendia, Makati City to Balintawak, Quezon City was ready for use but most ramps, which serve as access points to the toll road, were still closed.

According to Ang, this was a key reason for the dispute.

He said the TRB insisted that 100 percent of Skyway 3’s ramps should be finished even if the SMC contract allowed it to collect toll only when 95 percent of the entire project has been finished.

“The quickest way for our infrastructure unit to speed up 100 percent completion of the ramps would have been to close Skyway 3,” Ang said.

To date, Skyway 3 is 97 percent complete, Ang added.

SMC said on Tuesday that 10 of the 26 ramps were open and these comprised a “small portion” of the project and did not affect the 97 percent completion rate.

In an interview, Corpus said he was not aware of any TRB requirement for SMC to finish 100 percent of Skyway 3 before it can collect toll. He added that TRB never sought the closure of the project.

“Their announcement was an unexpected matter because we were not aware of any such directive to close Skyway 3,” he told the Inquirer.

Corpus, however, confirmed that SMC and TRB’s technical personnel had a meeting on March 15.

He explained that before the TRB can issue the authority to collect, the concessionaire must comply with several requirements, including meeting the 95 percent completion rate, safety tests and readiness to operate commercially.

He said the meeting on March 15 was on Skyway 3’s commercial readiness, which involves installing the toll collection system and testing for glitches.

As of Monday, SMC was still in the process of completing the installation, testing and commissioning of the systems, Corpus said.

Raymundo Junia, private sector representative at the TRB, said the board would take up SMC’s petition in their next meeting.

“I requested the board meeting for Monday or Tuesday,” he told the Inquirer. “This should have been approved two weeks ago.”

Junia said he understood SMC’s position because it needed to recover costs and spend on maintenance. He also noted that TRB had approved provisional toll for other expressway projects in the past.

“I cannot blame SMC for taking that decision [on possibly closing Skyway 3] because motorists are using the road,” Junia said.

Apart from Junia, the TRB is run by representatives from the Department of Transportation, Department of Public Works and Highways, Department of Finance, and National Economic and Development Authority.

Clarifications raised by some TRB members could lead to delays in making decisions.

For example, the Skyway’s completion rate was earlier certified at 97 percent by an independent consultant but a board member wanted to further validate those findings, Junia said, without naming the individual.

Toll at Skyway 3 could reach up to P247 for the entire stretch of the elevated expressway.

Junia, also chair of the TRB’s technical working group, said he was against high toll but he considered the amount a “fair rate”.

“That includes their cost of construction and maintenance costs,” Junia said.

In his statement, Ang said SMC had “revised the original proposed fare matrix to significantly lower toll rates.”

“In good faith, during our earlier discussions with TRB, we lowered the proposed toll rates significantly,” Ang said.

“Basically, we took out and deferred collection of most of the cost of right-of-way acquisition. After that, we lowered the rates even further, so that people travelling short distances would pay much less,” he added.

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