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On the STAR Tollway, some recent photos

A trip earlier this year allowed me to take a few photos of the STAR Tollway. STAR stands for Southern Tagalog Arterial Road, which was what the expressway was before it became a tollway. I have memories of this being a regular highway in the early 1990s. Then, it was still a two lane road and there were even animals walking around and at times crossing the highway. Later, even after it became an expressway, the ROW was still not secured (i.e., fenced) so motorists would regularly encounter animals creating unsafe situations to both.

Approaching the entrance to the STAR Tollway
Toll plaza at the entry
Speed limits – the maximum speed limit is 100 kph while the minimum speed limit is 60 kph. There is an interesting sign just before the speed limits. It states “No overtaking on impulse”.
Typical overpass for traffic crossing the tollway
Rest stop – there are only Petron stations along either direction of the tollway. San Miguel owns Petron and operates the tollway
A typical curve section
Sight distance requirements are satisfied for straight, level segments like this.
Typical off-ramp from the tollway

Noticeable in the photos are the wide medians. These are typically used for expansion (i.e., additional lanes) when the time comes that the capacity of the tollway is no longer enough to cater to the demand. Both the NLEX and SLEX used to have these wide medians that are now part of the motorway. Are there alternate uses or purposes for this median? Perhaps, and this has been done abroad, one could fit bicycle paths there? Or maybe install solar panels to generate power? Or maybe do both?

In defense of expressways

Expressways have been on the receiving end of criticisms and bad press lately mainly due to the recent much publicized proposal of a Pasig River Expressway (PAREX) by a private corporation. While I also do not agree with the alignment of this proposed tollway, I take exception to the generalization of expressways as sort of a manifestation of evil.

There seem to a lot of information being posted about and vs. expressways. However, it is important to sort through the hype as well as the misinformation that people tend to post about expressways. Yes, there are expressways being demolished or that have been demolished in other countries. These were probably so because they were ill-planned in the first place as are many other elevated pathways (e.g., poorly planned and designed footbridges), and many of the cities removing them have also developed their transport systems to be more efficient in terms of their people’s mobility. That is the case with Seoul and that certainly is the case for Tokyo. In fact, Tokyo had been moving their surface railways underground for the past decades. And now it seems they will be doing so for certain expressways. Does Tokyo have an efficient transport system? It does and perhaps is among the densest if not the most extensive rail and road system in the world.

It is important to have context to the matter. NLEX and SLEX, for example, were developed as relatively free-flowing, high capacity, high-speed roads that were the alternative to the national highways that directly connected many municipalities and cities. The latter had many intersections or junctions with other national roads as well as carry mainly local traffic including public transport such as tricycles and jeepneys. Expressways are built to be part of the primary arterial network and not as local roads. They are built for access rather than mobility.

From L-R: SLEX, Skyway, and the East Service Road. The Skyway connects the NAIA-X to the left and the NLEX connector section onwards through. SLEX eventually becomes the South Super Highway, which is an urban street.

So, are expressways anti-pedestrian? Basically, no. Though they clearly were not developed or constructed with walking in mind. In fact, expressways are generally built along secured right-of-way and are limited access facilities. In the Philippines, all expressways are tolled; meaning you have to pay to use them. Expressways are built more for long distance travel and not for the shorter ones where walking is most appropriate.

Are they car-centric? Not necessarily so because they provide a less congested alternative for long distance transport of people (buses and vans) and goods (trucks). Would you rather take the Manila North Road (McArthur Highway) to Baguio City and endure over 7 hours travel time? Or would you take the 4-hour trip via 3 expressways (NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX)?

Are expressways supposed to reduce traffic on local roads? Yes and no. Yes, because they actually do reduce traffic at the local level when you divert long distance travel to expressways. The math tells us there is subtraction there. However, it is a no in terms of local traffic increasing over time, which should not be charged to expressways, as they are a function of other elements coming into play including population increase and economic growth. This includes a contribution to induced traffic or new trips generated by the perception of infrastructure being adequate and having the capacity to cater to more trips that are not necessarily borne by cars.

Do we need more expressways? Probably, but not in the locations or alignments like the one proposed for PAREX. Incidentally, there is another expressway being planned that seems to have escaped the attention of those against PAREX. I am talking about the Laguna Lakeshore Expressway that will be a combination of at-grade (over reclaimed land) and elevated (viaduct over the Laguna de Bai) sections leading to heart of Laguna and towards Quezon province. But that’s another story…

On congested tollways during the pandemic

I finally was able to go on a long road trip yesterday as friends invited us to go on an excursion to Quezon to a prominent pottery artist’s place in the town of Tiaong. I first thought we would be going via the backdoor of Rizal since we were already in Antipolo but it turned out that it would be faster via the tollways route. Both Google and Waze recommend our route via C-6, SLEX and STAR to get to our destination. It could have been longer via the Manila East Road but which is a more scenic route. While it took us only 2.5 hours to get to our destination, it took an additional hour on the way back. Part of it was the congestion along the national highway between Tiaong and Sto. Tomas, Batangas but I was also a bit surprised about the congestion along SLEX on the way back (photo below) but saw that this was mainly due to vehicles filing towards the Skyway ramp in Alabang.

There was the expected congestion at the toll plazas as vehicles still need to slow down. It is not like the seamless, structure-less system in Singapore where their sensors can detect vehicles running at high speeds. The toll barriers are still there and the channels for one are relatively narrow. Then, there are travelers that seem hard in understanding that there are specific booths for cash payments. Also, there were occasions when the barriers did not lift immediately for one reason or another. That tends to slow down the processing of queued vehicles – a problem that my undergraduate students could probably take on after their lessons in queuing theory.

On the RFID fiasco

Early December 2020, Metro Pacific Corporation suddenly had to deal with jam-packed toll plazas and queues that affected roads connecting to the North Luzon Expressways. Fast-forward and Valenzuela City apparently had enough of it and revoked the tollway corporation’s business permit. Later, matters were resolved with the tollways reverting to mixed toll collection to manage the queues at the toll plazas.

Prior to this, tollways corporation scrambled to meet the deadline set and re-set by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) through the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) for contactless, cashless toll payments. The question is if there was enough time for tollway operators to acquire the best (not just the minimum required) system for this endeavor. There are some opinions that this was basically required on short notice and for the government to get some brownie points for this.

Were there issues about technology and the corresponding costs to the acquisition and deployment of the necessary devices for seamless, contactless, delay-free (in relative terms) transactions for tollways? Probably so. Those RFIDs and the readers installed at strategic locations along tollways (i.e., entries and exits) were certainly not state of the art or the best available out there. Singapore, for example, uses a more sophisticated system for their expressways where you no longer have toll plazas and you won’t have to slow down to be detected by the system. That system has corresponding costs but is perfect for the city state given that most roads are tolled anyway because of their road pricing policy. In the case of our tollways, not all travelers are actually going to utilize the tollways as frequently as it would necessitate them having to get either the Easy Trip or Auto Sweep tags. That is obvious from the relatively low penetration rates for electronic toll collection (ETC). So it still makes sense to have hybrid booths for those not availing the ETC option. Anyway, travelers will have to exercise disinfection protocols to ensure infections are prevented.

Cavitex

I had wanted to post about the Manila-Cavite Expressway (Cavitex) but kept putting it off as I had few photos of the tollway. Formerly known as the Coastal Road, it is now operated by the Metro Pacific group, which also operates the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX), the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) and the Subic Freeport Expressway (SFX). Here are photos I took last February this year when we went to Bacoor with our Japanese research lead. Most of the photos show sections towards Cavite (southbound).

The tollways has 3 lanes along each direction.

On one side is the bay where reclamation projects are proposed or currently under way.

Lane markings in an attempt to position vehicles towards the toll plaza, which is visible from afar in the photo

Vehicles queuing at the toll plaza – it can get very congested here during the peak periods and seasons.

Cavitex toll plaza

There is basically one toll plaza for the tollway for either direction.

Free-flowing traffic during an off-peak period

Approaching the interchange where vehicles bound for Bacoor, Imus and Las Pinas take the right side of the road to exit via the trumpet ramp shown ahead at right. Other vehicles bound for Kawit and Cavite City go straight.

Climbing the ramp to exit towards Bacoor, Cavite

Off-ramp to Bacoor, Imus and Las Pinas

Where expressway meets the national highway

Overpass towards the tollway

Toll plaza for the northbound (to Manila) direction

Another crash along NLEX – losing control?

We were returning from Clark last week when we chanced upon a crash site along the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX). We already suspected this as we approached a build-up of traffic along the southbound direction where there is usually free-flowing traffic. Here are some photos of an overturned vehicle on the median. It seems like it is the only vehicle involved as there were no other vehicle in the vicinity that could have been involved. However, it is possible that there was another vehicle involved in a situation where the overturned vehicle’s driver lost control after interacting with the other vehicle. Obviously both vehicles could have been traveling at high speeds (they are on an expressway) so this could have been an example where the combination of speeding and weaving in traffic led to an overturned vehicle (i.e., one lost control).

NAIA Expressway – T2 to T3

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on the NAIA Expressway. This time, I am posting on the trip back from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3. It cost us 45 pesos, which is the same toll fee we paid for the reverse direction. Here are photos I took of NAIA X with some comments on the sections and signs.

Vehicles coming from Terminals 1 and 2 would have to take the on-ramp after the intersection of NAIA Road and the Paranaque-Sucat Road (Ninoy Aquino Avenue) and just before the intersection with the Domestic Airport Road.

That’s the Park’N Fly building that is located at the corner of the NAIA Road-Domestic Road intersection.

Vehicles bound for Terminal 3 and the Skyway should keep right.

Traffic will merge with those coming from Macapagal Boulevard.

Speed limit and signs for merging traffic

The three lanes include the merging lane at right.

Noticeable along the NAIA X is the lack of shoulders. Although the lanes appear to be wide, drivers may become uncomfortable when two vehicles are side by side due to the perception of constricted space.

There are lots of reflectors installed on the media barriers. There are also a lot of ad space with tarps installed on each lamp post along the expressway.

Sign informing travelers of the toll plaza coming up ahead.

Directional sign guiding vehicles bound for the Skyway or Terminal 3. My colleagues and I agree that instead of just stating “Skyway”, the sign should state “Skyway/C5/Nichols”. Travelers who are not heading south and unfamiliar with the NAIA X off-ramps would likely take the Terminal 3 exit and end up passing through T3. There is actually another off-ramp leading to Andrews Avenue and eventually Sales Road (formerly Nichols) so you don’t have to pass through T3. We made that mistake and ended up going through T3.

Toll plaza prior to the T3 exit ramp

Section just after the toll plaza

Off ramp

Standing vehicles right next to the off-ramp with their drivers likely waiting to fetch arriving passengers. It is practically impossible to make a hard left to avoid going into T3 so you have no choice but to go through the terminal via the departure level (elevated)  or the arrival level (ground).

NAIA Expressway – T3 to T2/T1

Last Friday was our first time to use the NAIA Expressway. This was one of the major projects under the last administration and under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) program and became operational last year after being delayed (It was not operational during the APEC summit in 2015.) for some time. I also commented on the need for NAIA X in one post before as I preferred to have a transit system instead. NAIA X is basically and mostly beneficial to cars and not necessarily for public transport. It also practically limits if not eliminates the possibility of having elevated transit (e.g., monorail or AGT) to connect the 4 terminals among them as well as to areas outside the airport zone (BGC, Makati, etc.).

I thought this post would be a useful one for travelers especially those coming in and out of the airports at this time of the year. A lot of people are departing or arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), which is a main gateway to Metro Manila and adjacent regions. It can get congested along the roads between the four terminals of the airport and since there is not internal transport system linking them, travelers would need to travel along public roads. It cost 45 pesos (less than 1 USD) for the stretch from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 (same if you’re headed for Terminal 1), and I thought it was well worth it considering it can really be quite congested between the 4 terminals. That congestion has already victimized a lot of people before with many missing their flights. But then perhaps one major cause of that congestion was the construction of the NAIA Expressway?

Entry ramp across from Terminal 3 and before the Sta. Clara church at Newport City

Toll plaza where travelers pay upon entry to the tollway

Just before the toll plaza where most booths are for mixed ETC/cash transactions

Upon exiting the toll plaza, travelers have to deal with multiple lanes merging into two

Two-lane section with neither shoulders nor “elbow room”

  Directional sign providing guidance especially for vehicles headed to Terminals 1 &2

Directional signs for vehicles bound for Cavite and Macapagal Blvd (left) and Terminals 1 or 2 (right)

The tollway section goes underneath the section headed towards Macapagal Boulevard and the Coastal Road

The lane from Terminal 3 merges with another from the Coastal Road

Signs showing which side to stay along towards either Terminal 2 or 1

Fork in the road – the tollway branches our to either Terminal 2 or Terminal 1

Off ramp towards Terminal 2

Next: Terminal 2 to Terminal 3