By Emmie V. Abadilla
Moves to suspend or cut toll fees in South Luzon Expressway due to the traffic slowdown brought about by the ongoing construction of the ₱10-billion Skyway Extension project of San Miguel Corporation (SMC) are ill-advised. It will be detrimental to both motorists and the country, warned SMC president and chief operating officer Ramon S. Ang.
He was reacting to Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) private sector representative Raymundo Junia’s “persistent efforts to blame the Skyway Extension project for the one-day spike in traffic the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX)”.
The TRB official wants a ₱44 discount on toll on the expressway (from the current ₱49), following a traffic jam last Sept. 25, with the start of construction of the Skyway Extension.
“First, suspending toll fees will violate our concession agreement, and worse, damage our standing with the banks. In our loan covenants, there are stipulations about earning back the money we borrowed to build or improve our infrastructure. If banks see that government can just stop honoring concession contracts, they will also stop lending to local companies. Investor confidence will go down,” he explained.
“Second, it wouldn’t be fair. We have more than ₱7 billion in foregone revenues from periodic toll increases that were never granted. Toll increases are part of our contract. They are needed for us to recover our investment and be able to pay back the money we borrowed to build or expand infrastructure. We have not been allowed to implement any increases since 2012.”
The subject of contention, the one-day spike in traffic SLEX came about because “We had to close down one lane to start construction so that we can finish before the busy Christmas season,” according to Ang.
“Traffic on that day stretched to 19 kilometers. We’ve owned up and I personally apologized to the public. We’ve also set clear targets as to when various stages of the work will be completed. I feel that most people are reasonable, and they see that this project will help them.”
Before the construction of the SLEX extension, normal peak traffic in the area stretched anywhere from 5-12 kilometers daily
“Just a day or two later, traffic went back to normal, which was about 10 kms. of slow-moving vehicles,” Ang underscored. “Even the TRB has said that the situation has since returned to normal. If what Junia is saying is that the daily traffic is caused by construction–and that we have to give a discount because of this–then we feel it is unwarranted. The traffic has always been there.”
The perennial traffic on the SLEX heading to Alabang is caused primarily by the design limitations of the SLEX-Alabang area that the company inherited from the former concessionaire. From Susana Heights, SLEX has 5 lanes, but at the Alabang viaduct, this narrows to just three, creating a bottleneck.
“This has always been the problem of motorists coming from the south. It’s a chokepoint,” Ang reiterated.
“Every year, our traffic volume increases. There’s tremendous growth in the southern provinces — Cavite, Batangas, Laguna. Just the amount of new subdivisions is staggering. This is precisely why we need a bold, new, long-term solution. We want to make both northbound and southbound lanes have five lanes each.”
The Skyway Extension will add capacity for 4,500 vehicles per hour on the northbound side, and 3000 more vehicles per hour on the southbound section. It will make travel faster and easier as motorists will be able to bypass the Alabang viaduct and even EDSA, if they’re headed to either NAIA, Makati, Manila, Quezon City, or beyond.
“How can we solve Alabang traffic in the first place, if we don’t build new roads? What will happen if we don’t do anything? Would motorists be happy if we didn’t disrupt the status quo of 10-12 kms. of traffic every day? Motorists were already unhappy with one or two days of extraordinary traffic. Can you imagine how much worse they will feel if, for the next decade or so, the situation continues to worsen, and nobody did anything about it?”
“We understand the knee-jerk reaction is to ask for something in return for a slight inconvenience. It’s a populist idea. But I hope those pushing for this understand and see the bigger picture,” says the SMC President.
“The TRB will say it does not owe us anything, simply because it does not borrow money. But it also hasn’t approved any toll increases. The other expressway operator already filed a case against them for the same reason–and won.”
“We have done no such thing because we felt we could still take it, and because we believe we’re helping government help the public. Suspending toll now would be like punishing a company that, despite still having billions in receivables, has taken the initiative to invest another ₱10 billion to solve Alabang traffic, once and for all.”
“Also, if you suspend toll fees, that will not really bring relief. It will make the problem worse. More vehicles will flood the expressways, and nobody will be happy because of the increasing congestion,” Ang concluded.