Chaos at the expressway toll booths

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.