The return to Sta. Inez
Now that the integration of SCTEx and NLEx is imminent, the Dau toll barrier will soon migrate to the Sta. Inez end of the NLEx. Which was were it used to be when the PNCC (Philippine National Construction Company) controlled North Diversion Road (NDR) extension was opened in 1982. Still single carriageway from the Angeles toll barrier then, the road widened to dual carriageway after crossing the Mawaque river at Sta. Inez itself. This is where northbound toll fees were paid and the Manila bound entry coupon was issued. Being the end of the expressway, Sta. Inez was a text book “trumpet” interchange with one overpass for the Mabalacat-Concepcion highway, a Concepcion-Magalang-bound off-ramp on the south east quadrant, a Manila-bound on-ramp on the south west quadrant and the long west by northwest loop to a Mabalacat-MacArthur Highway-bound off ramp on the north west quadrant.
Lots of history
Since opening, the Sta. Inez toll barrier replaced the Angeles toll barrier as the choke point for long queues for Baguio and North-bound traffic during Holy Week and the long weekends that pepper our annual work calendar. It played a major role in 1991 when a spectacularly long convoy of all the motor vehicles of the US Armed Forces of Clark Air Base evacuated to Subic, just as Pinatubo was about to blow its top. During the Cory era, the NDR, was inflicted with a traffic light at-grade junction at Dau to allow PX goods customers a way in, without diverting too far to Sta. Inez.
The Sta. Inez toll plaza revived memories of the way the NDR extension was more than 30 years ago. It was a simpler era, when traffic was lighter, far faster and accidents were a lot less. There were no LIDAR speed cameras, patrols, rescue, SOS phones and asphaltic concrete was a contradiction in terms. It would take the early 21st century for the PNCC to deploy their cross pavement “rubber hose” speed monitoring equipment. This, by no means, implies that the NDR was a lot safer thirty years ago. No, there just were a lot less dangerous drivers on the road then.
Inauguration by stealth
Even the word soft opening was an unknown entity then. Word of mouth was the the main source of info even as the opening of the Dau to Sta. Inez segment was whispered to be on standby for a bigger public event when a sick Pres. Marcos could travel on his MAN hospital bus. But before that, toll collection at the Angeles terminal toll plaza ceased once the Sta. Inez toll barrier was commissioned.
In those days, most of the NDR extension after the Candaba Viaduct was still single carriageway. There was a short double carriageway stretch at San Fernando, but it was back to single carriageway all the way north, except the soon-to-be-dismantled Angeles toll barrier. Overtaking on the shoulder, if there was oncoming traffic, was a blood-sport given. Moreover, the landfill causeway segment on Candaba swamp from the Viaduct to San Simon was bumpy asphalt as PNCC was employing the passing of time and traffic to compact the earth-fill. Bridges over gully approaches subsided into WRC [World Rally Championship] standard “yumps”, sending a poorly suspended car airborne if taken at speed. On more solid ground north of the Candaba swamp, the NDR extension was classic concrete pavement with diagonal expansion joints and an asphalt shoulder. Hence the Toyota Corolla Liftbacks and Mitsubishi Lancers of the day, had their suspension cut out for not so fast driving over such pavement.
Mercedes Benz 230.4
Which makes a 1976 end-of-model-lifecycle era Mercedes Benz W115 230.4 the ideal autobahn stormer on this stretch of highway, which was the equal in pavement standards of any Nazi-era or DDR (Deutsche Demokratic Republik) communist East German autobahn. Imported into the country in 1982 as a used car with 160,000 autobahn kilometers on the clock, thanks to a friendly government minister and his friendly PNB (Philippine National Bank) Frankfurt officer, it was lent to me to test drive a locally-installed built-in type aftermarket air conditioner.
The best driving saloon car in the world
It was your typical West German businessman's no-nonsense sedan. In Mercedes “papyrus” white color, navy blue Mercedes Leatherette upholstery, wheel covers and standard Semperit 175 SR-14 rib profile tires (to protect the wheel covers), it was bog standard. Rather good condition with everything working fine and without a niggle, squeak or rattle as all indestructible Mercedes are known to be. Hand on heart, I truly believed then that the W115 Mercedes 200 was the best handling and best riding 4-door sedan in the world. The best ever, in fact, taking into account even the latest corpulent and all electronic 2010 series E-class.
The .4 of the 230.4 type script on the trunk lid indicates an over-square big bore piston 4-cylinder 8-valve single overhead cam as opposed to the high revving 230.6's six cylinder. With 2307 cc's of alloy head /engine, its 110hp is 20hp more than the ordinary 200 2.0-liter petrol engine. Mated to a 4 on the floor gearbox, most W115's came with regular non-power steering which wasn't too heavy and neither did it have the steering ratio of an Isuzu truck. At 1,345 kgs, it weighed 45kgs more than today's 2.0 liter Altis. The 230.4 may have occupied the same amount of real estate as a modern day Altis, but the interior space was twice as big thanks to its more upright mien. It's 0-100 in 13.7 seconds would just about be the average for a 21st century compact powered by a 100hp 1.3 liter 16 valve, weighing at least a ton. Still, the 230.4 of the 70's wouldn't make it in the company of 'bahn-stormers' in the 21st century.
Despite the absence of any power amenities, save for the aftermarket Hirschmann automatic antenna for the simple Becker AM-FM-cassette, the spring mattress seating and the long supple springs on double wishbones and semi trailing arms was sublime comfort on the washboard concrete of the older parts of the NDR. The Mercedes was unique as it need not slow down at a flat out pedal to the metal pace – another cliché little known in 1983 – at all those sinking gullies and bridge approach yumps. This was to prove an advantage on that fateful day.
Mid morning and the road was clear. Entering from Meycauayan, bursts of high speeds and finally pedal to the metal in the literal sense after clearing Burol. I take note as I pass the point where the old NDR spurs west to the old Tabang toll barrier. The spec sheet said that the 230.4 is good up to 170km/h. But with a well used engine, an indicated 195km/h would, inclusive of speedo error, just about safely conform to the “S” 190km/h speed rating of the Semperit radials.
Burol to the Viaduct and on to San Simon were the stomping grounds of the Teodoro brothers in their Citroen CX, BMW 2002 turbo, Ferrari 356GT or Dino 308. The NDR was their commute route between the Ang Tibay shoe factory in Grace Park, Caloocan and the huge Integrated Shoe factory in Mariveles, Bataan Export processing zone. Besides the NDR to San Fernando, they had plenty of space to max their cars at the arrow straight Bataan expressway.
Cars of the era, especially options austere Mercedes, didn't always have a tachometer or a rev counter. Mercedes used to print yellow slashes on the VDO speedometer faces to indicate the top permissible speed per gear. There was one yellow slash at 48km/h to mark the max. speed for 1st gear, 2 yellow slashes at 88km/h for 2nd gear and three slashes at 140km/h for 3rd gear. Now, the Stromberg side draft single carb fed engine produces its max hp at a lazy 4,800rpm, much like the low revving torque-rich valve-in-head cast iron V-8 lumps found in the era's Bentleys and Rolls Royces. Twelve mkg of torque, whatever that is, at a so-so 2,500 rpm, accounted for that wonderful low rpm punch and un-Mercedes like tire chirp when upshifting from gear to gear. But that didn't make it a match for Detroit V8 iron.
And that was what I was faced with. After slowing down at the decommissioned Angeles toll plaza, I noted a largish American sedan on my tail. With US base license plates, the '76 Oldsmobile Cutlass coupe was soon on my rear bumper and in a second, passed me by, 250hp 445 Rocket V-8 bellowing from its twin downspout exhausts. Save for the military buzz-cut, the Black gent driving it was Motown to the core; left elbow sticking into the wind, right wrist draped 12o'clock on the steering wheel and, maybe I imagined this, a stogie clenched between his teeth.
Motown vs. Swabia
Time to down shift and max those yellow slashes on the speedo. I then gave chase. Plebian 4 cylinders, despite its Swabian heritage, was no match to double the number of Detroit pistons. Granted that the common Cutlass was the best-selling car in America at that time, it was unique here and the two-tone copper one I was after was far in front of me. Flat out and pedal to the metal, it took Philippine road building nous for me to catch up with the US serviceman's Olds – as WRC yumps and bumps are unknown to Motown's home freeways. At 195km/h, I passed the hard braking Olds on bridge approach after bridge approach, with sparks flying from its scraping underbelly.
Epic see-saw battle
Soon we settled to a rhythm where Motown caught up with me, blasted my doors on the straights only for me to catch up with him to blast his doors on the bridges. For a while there, I thought the “race” would end in the reversal of World War 2 fortunes: Germany 1- USA 0. Until we got to the virgin concrete of the final Dau to Sta. Inez section. I knew Motown would be heading for Sta. Inez as the Clark Mabalacat gate was exclusive to Servicemen unlike the big Balibago Friendship gate at Angeles with its cheeky “salakot” (historic Filipino wooden headgear) entrance gate. What I didn't count on was the smooth bridge approach, one or two of them, on this segment.
As I watched the Olds underbelly spark and scrape on the last few bridge approaches, I gunned the 230.4, squeezing to 195 again and again. With less than 2.0kms of NDR left, I was still in the lead but Motown was fast catching up. At last, wheel to wheel, we were almost at the last international traffic “cancel” sign that warns of the end of the expressway. And the last bridge. Motown was already on the overtake but I espied an oncoming car and, like a true sporting gentleman, I let go of the throttle. I am sure, Motown knew I let off for his sake and when I drew up along side him at a parallel toll gate at Sta. Inez, he gave me a thumbs up and drove into the noon day sun, rippling canvas crescendo in his audible wake. I wonder if he was one of them Clark flyboys who high-tailed by convoy to Subic in 1991 just about when Mt. Pinatubo put an end to our government's dream wish to squeeze more rent from them US Bases.
Remember the CDCP?
Alas, as the years went by and the tolls stayed cheap, the tollway deteriorated while the PNCC was to continue to be a drain on the government coffers. It was a shadow of its former self, previously known as the CDCP or Construction Development Corporation of the Philippines. In its heyday, CDCP built the nation's expressways; North Diversion Road, South Diversion Road, the Marikina to Infanta highway starting with the Marcos Highway and the Coastal Road. CDCP also built expressways in the New Territories of HongKong, Iraq and a couple of Gulf states. CDCP then was the biggest customer of GM's TEREX heavy equipment, earning a good number of CDCP engineers masters degree engineering courses in GMI (General Motors Institute). After being starved of maintenance funding, the Erap administration invited BOT (Build Operate and Transfer) private sector proponents to rehabilitate the now rechristened (NLT) North Luzon Tollway.
First Philippine Holdings of the Lopez group bagged the contract just when the Asian Financial Crisis siphoned off all development financing for the Region. Through dogged determination and even to the extent of risking the crown jewels of the Lopez empire, finance was found through the Asian Development Bank. The Manila North Tollways Corp. (MNTC) then commissioned Leighton of Australia to rebuild and expand the NLEx and introduce the latest global standards in construction and roadworks traffic management in 2001.
By late 2004, when NLEx was almost 90% complete, plans for an early 2005 inauguration hit a snag. The Sta. Inez interchange would have to lose its Concepcion-Magalang off ramp as it appears that the PNCC never paid the private property owners for the expropriated land that the off ramp was built on. This forced the MNTC to divert the Concepcion-Magalang traffic to merge with the Magalang-MacArthur bound off ramp. Today, anyone who wants to go to Concepcion/Magalang, exiting east on the traffic triangle, needs to have his/her eyes beside his/her right ear just so he/she can see oncoming traffic. Matters are not helped at night as tricycles and juggernauts sometimes drive along the Mabalacat-Concepcion Road with their headlights off. Needless to say, accidents continue to happen on this black spot.
What to do? By 2010, with traffic greatly increased by the opening of the SCTEx and impending partial opening of TPLEx, NLEx was nearing saturation point so much so that MNTC submitted an expansion plan to the TRB in 2012. This includes – expansion from 2x2 carriageway to 3x3 carriageway from Sta. Rita, Candaba Viaduct to San Fernando – the section which witnesses the most accidents during long weekends. Also in the expansion plans were the completion of the 2x2 carriageway from Balem-SCTEx junction to Sta. Inez toll barrier terminus. Included in those plans were the solution to the traffic black spot on the Sta. Inez interchange.
By 2015, TRB approved the engineering studies of the NLEx expansion, but to this date, TRB has not approved any financial component, which includes new toll rates. In fact, TRB has not approved any of the several submitted petitions to raise tolls on the NLEx since 2010.
Who is this TRB? The Toll Regulatory Board, is one government agency that has limited awareness in the public consciousness, unless one remembers a publicized controversy in the late Nineties regarding the purchase of several Mercedes Benz vans. Besides this, the public's point of with the TRB is through its hyperactive Twitter account called TRBSAFE. TRBSAFE receives all the daily traffic updates from all the tollways in the country and retweets them to the public. This has proven valuable, if one receives the tweet in a timely manner, particularly during long weekend traffic queues and when interchanges are flooded. TRB also fields Road Safety inspection teams to monitor if the private tollway O&M (operation and maintenance) contractors are following their contract duties on enforcing speed limits, freight load weight limits and the seat belt law, among many others. The next obvious question now is, who monitors the TRB? Indeed, who does anyway?
The TRB is under the DoTC (Dept. of Transportation and Communication), is chaired by the DoTC Secretary and counts as its members, Secretaries of the DoF (Dept. of Finance), DPWH (Dept. of Public Works and Highways), and NEDA (National Economic Development Authority). For some 8 years now, Mr. Edmund G. REYES has been the executive officer in charge of discharging the TRB's functions, thus Edmund can only act if the Board tells him to. Why this matters to you and me is because it is the TRB who approves the amount of toll fees charged and also approves the construction of new tollways, the conversion of public roads into limited access tollways and the expansion of existing tollways.
MNTC would do well not to fall into the trap that TRB sprung on San Miguel Infra when it expanded the STAR expressway from Lipa to Balagtas roundabout from single to 2x2 dual carriageway. Stung by several deadly accidents when the new 1x1 single carriageway from Lipa to Balagtas was opened in 2009, TRB cajoled San Miguel infra in 2011 to invest in upgrading the said STAR segment to 2x2 dual carriageway. So by 2012, San Miguel began expansion and delivered the 2x2 carriageway by mid 2014. Problem is, TRB, to this day, has not acted on any toll rate hike petitions that, by contract, is part and parcel of any expansion undertaken by the private sector O&M tollways contractor. In fact, TRB hasn't acted on any toll rate hike petitions of SLEx, Skyway, SFEx and SCTEx for five years and counting. TRB has not acted on CAVITEx toll rates for 6 years now, despite the expansion and reclamation that CAVITEx has done for the past few years. To think, it already “stiffed” Skyway when it prevented Skyway from charging toll for one year when the NAIA Expressway Stage 1 was opened in 2009. Likewise with the SCTEx, when it started advanced building of two new exit interchanges in the mountainous south only to be left waiting for a toll rate adjustment to this day. TRB inaction on toll rate adjustments is the cause of the delay for the further expansion of SLEx from 4x4 carriageway to 5x5 from Alabang to Mamplasan, and 3x3 to 4x4 lanes from Mamplasan to Calamba.
The silence of the dead
It would seem that the TRB has taken a similar tact as the MWSS (Metropolitan Waterworks Sewerage System) when it comes to toll rate hikes, though TRB's way is the silence of the dead, rather than contending, like MWSS, to be taken to court. Still, there are other matters that TRB should be able to influence. For the sake of the motoring public, it should have weighed in on the delayed integration of the NLEx with the SCTEx that was causing monstrous toll paying queues during long weekends. It had to take Senator Drilon, trapped in those long traffic queues on the NLEx, SCTEx and TPLEx in 2014, to act on this integration.
Like the LTFRB pushing for latest technology systems like BRT and UBER taxis, TRB should be at the forefront of imposing interoperability of electronic toll collection (ETC) like E-PASS and EasyTrip being enabled for use on all expressways regardless if operated by San Miguel, Ayala or Metro Pacific tollways. Besides mandating the establishment of an ETC clearing house like the Bankers Association of the Philippines (BAP) Philippine Clearing House Corp. (PCHC), Government imposed interoperability should negate the rivalry mindset between tollway operators and ETC providers.
As it is, if one dared to suggest using his E-PASS on the NLEx, he and NLEx can be sued by Citra as E-PASS modules are only rented from Citra. If only ETC providers can get over their rivalry, ETC interoperability presents “float” opportunities when toll charges are remitted to the appropriate tollway operator. For example E-PASS collections for NLEx tolls will always be subject to such a float, just like “funds float” when checks are being cleared at the Phil. Clearing House. If Skyway and Metro Pacific Tollways can agree on the common alignment for the Skyway Stage 3-NLEx Metro link Connector, why should suggesting E-PASS interoperability at NLEx be subject to a lawsuit? So far, South Tollways will still de-activate E-PASS by year end, despite the fact that the RFID replacement has a failure rate of 20%. This will cost South Tollways big in failed collection but it seems that they are willing to take that hit just to get rid of E-PASS. Why get rid of a consumer friendly product?
Any board meetings at all?
TRB should also be more pro-active in identifying toll payment bottlenecks – like the daily morning traffic jams at Skyway elevated Alabang which spills over to block through traffic at Skyway at-grade and the Alabang Viaduct of SLEx North Bound. We have suggested before that the solution lies in making Skyway elevated Alabang exclusively all pay on exit, while Manila bound Skyway elevated traffic is just a simple barrier up pass through entry. This will require rebuilding Skyway Nichols A and B toll plazas as the toll collection point for Makati bound traffic. The venue is where it used to be located and is now occasionally used as an apprehension lay-by by the anti-over-speeding posse. But for all of this to happen, and for executive officer Reyes to act, the Board must have some kind of an agenda, if ever they even meet at all. And if they do meet, why aren't such aforecited critical matters taken up? Someone has to monitor this TRB.
It can't just be the President who may only take a moody peripheral interest/disinterest in TRB issues. It can't just be the DoF Secretary who will fight any opportunity to disburse hard earned collections just to abide by contract obligations. It can't just be the always embattled DoTC secretary who will always have his/her hands full. And how about the NEDA Secretary? Perhaps it has to be the DPWH secretary who should grab the reins as TRB inaction on the aforecited critical matters impacts how well and how fast our congested economy can expand our road network. With Sec. Singson, we have the best motivated monitor over the TRB. He should be given the whip and he should start cracking. Mr. Reyes would welcome the chance to get something done.