05 April 2012 : even before daybreak, the traffic queues were long at NLEx's Balintawak and Mindanao Avenue toll plazas. Within an hour, long queues developed at NLEx Dau, SCTEx Mabalacat and SCTEx Tarlac. Welcome to the Maundy Thursday syndrome, an annual national habit. Over a span of three quarters of the day, starting at midnight, some 35,000 vehicles exited Tarlac for every 100,000 that entered through Balintawak and Mindanao. Since the President has not yet approved the NLEx-SCTEx toll collection/operation integration, 35% of some 250,000 vehciles destined for points north of Tarlac, had to endure queues at NLEx Dau and SCTEx Mabalacat, besides their origin entry queues and at their final exit in SCTEx Tarlac, onward to the traffic congested MacArthur Highway. For northbound motorists, Maundy Thursday 2012 saw a 20% increase in traffic over 2011. With the Araw ng Kagitingan holiday coming after Easter Sunday, our countrymen wisely added another day off to their vacation itinerary.
Getting stuck in slow moving traffic during Holy Week is a given. In fact, it would have been abnormal if traffic was smooth and free flowing on Maundy Thursday. And as a normal and rational expectation, traffic should worsen with each passing year, that is, unless road capacity increases drastically. The capacity of our expressways are realistically designed to take the normal capacity of traffic for the other 51 weeks of the year that isn't Holy Week. Nevertheless, it is always the catastrophic, like storm Ondoy, that etches itself in one's holiday memory.
As always, every year is instructive and data can be extrapolated to scenario what can happen the following year as April 09, 2013 falls on a Tuesday. Though it is well known that this Pnoy administration isn't into snap announcements of non working holidays just because the day squeezes between a Sunday and a holiday.
Quick and easy
So Maundy Thursday 2013 is going to be as bad or even worse, particularly for northbound holiday-makers. But it doesn't mean nothing can be done. Though it is a reasonable expectation for all northbound motorists to acquire an Easy Trip transponder for express toll payments, once or twice a year passage by vacationing motorists may not justify the cost even if one studies the fuel wasted waiting at queues may well have paid for the Easy Trip subscription, toll load and then some.
If only NLEx bound motorists ape their southbound counterparts as easily 80% of SLEx toll journeys are paid via E-Pass. NLEx's Easy Trip, like Skyway's E-Pass, is now available for all other classes of vehicles and what remains to be done is to increase the Mixed-Easy-Trip-Cash lanes on all the NLEx exits. Meantime, for occasional NLEx users like Holy Week motorists, MNTC, the NLEx and SCTEx operator, has also been promoting its prepaid express lanes where motorists journeying from end to end just pre-pay their toll on entry and surrender the ticket at the end of journey.
If all goes to plan regular northbound Holy Week travelers should look forward to the new TPLEx [Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union-Expressway] come Maundy Thursday 2013. Slated to open in November 2012, the TPLEx as partially completed, is a single carriageway toll road, similar to the Lipa to Batangas section of the STAR tollway and the Biyabas to Sta. Inez final section of the NLEx. It begins at the terminal point of SCTEx in La Paz, Tarlac, with the Balingcawanay interchange over the Tarlac-Sta. Rosa road and will initially reach only up to Gerona, Tarlac, bypassing burgeoning Tarlac City and the crawling tricycle-jeepney-sugar cane truck infested MacArthur highway. The Tarlac operations building, several river bridges, columns and girders for the interchanges at Victoria, Gerona, Moncada and Paniqui in Tarlac and Carmen, Pangasinan are already up.
If the TPLEx is to make a difference in northbound travel, PIDCo, the builder and operator of TPLEx, should already be constructing the connector expressway on BCDA owned real estate between the La Paz, Tarlac terminus of SCTEx to the Balingcawanay TPLEx entry just across the Tarlac City-Sta. Rosa national road. Assuming TPLEx will collect “pay-as-you-exit” toll, the longer transaction time for payment compared to picking up a ticket or card on entry will mean longer queues at the payment end. Even if the TPLEx will only reach Rosario, La Union in 2016, PIDCo should already consider preparatory provisions for additional staggered toll barriers like what Skyway employs on the ground level Nichols plaza and elevated Alabang Skyway plaza and also at SLEx Calamba. Staggered toll plazas also allow for quick convertibility of toll gates to counterflow traffic from paying-collecting to issuing so that extra lanes can be added for which ever direction has the heavier traffic.
Spillover to TPLEx
This early, PIDCo should design as much queue space for the TPLEx toll plazas. Maundy Thursday 2012 traffic queues at Tarlac terminus of SCTEx averaged 2.5kms for several hours.
If the President approves the NLEx-SCTEx integration, hopefully this year, the civil works and toll plaza reconfiguration will entail the decommissioning of the Dau and Mabalacat toll plazas. This will only mean that on Maundy Thursday 2013, the pile up at the Tarlac SCTEx toll plaza will come sooner and be longer. It is a safe assumption that those same motorists will spill over and queue to enter the TPLEx as TPLEx has long been touted as the escape from the traffic hell hole that is MacArthur highway.
Double white lines
TPLEx faces a host of other operational challenges. They can at least be assured that northbound truck traffic coming out of SCTEx has been screened for overloading. But the onus would be on TPLEx to screen southbound truck traffic as they come off MacArthur highway.
Wide open 2-lanes
Considering that TPLEx plans to add another carriageway when traffic hits 25,000 vehicles/day, we can safely assume that the radius of the curves of the TPLEx are wide and gentle enough to provide adequate visibility for overtaking “headroom” or lead space. Still, just like the single carriageway STAR tollway and NLEx section, double white or yellow lines may be needed to warn against the dangers of overtaking without a clear path. On sections with inclines, perhaps there should be a slow vehicle crawler lane on the right, just like what SFEx has on the Subic-Tipo uphill section.
NLEx-SCTEx Integration NOW !
At this early stage, what is critical for TPLEx to succeed is that the NLEx-SCTEx integration should not be delayed. PIDCo will finish the TPLEx Tarlac toll plaza soon, but SCTEx cannot even begin to build their Tarlac toll plaza until the integration is approved by the President. The SCTEx-NLEx integration has been vetted during the GMA administration and by President Aquino's appointees already. Although both the NLEx-SCTEx integration and TPLEx were projects approved before the PPP, it would be a gargantuan disservice to all northbound motorists and to PIDCo, the project proponents of the TPLEx, if the SCTEx integration was not approved in time to help make a difference in motoring convenience and safety by the end of this year.