Tollways for progress

WHEN President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Metro Pacific Tollways Corp. (MPTC) chair Manuel V. Pangilinan recently unveiled the P38-billion MPTC road network project, they were celebrating not only Arroyo’s 62nd birthday but also the largest private toll road investment in the Philippines.

Confidence in the future. The MPTC project demonstrates a deep confidence in the resiliency of the economy and a vote of confidence in its future, even when the Philippines – to quote Romulo Virola, secretary general of the National Statistical Coordination Board – “is teetering into recession.”

Indeed, this infrastructure commitment will help spur the economy on the heels of a measly .4 percent GDP growth of our country during the first quarter of this year, the worst result – in seasonally adjusted terms – since the country’s downturn in decades. It will create 107,000 jobs during the five-year construction period.

This P38 billion will be used by MPTC, first, in building a P1.2 billion, toll-free, four-lane stretch to connect Mindanao Avenue in Quezon City to the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) entry in Valenzuela City. Construction is on going and is expected to be finished in April 2010. Travel time from North Avenue, QC to Valenzuela will be cut to only 15 minutes. MPTC will not collect tolls for this segment in exchange for a seven-year extension of its NLEX franchise from 2030 to 2037.

Second, MPTC will construct a P10 billion, 3-kilometer turnpike connecting the NLEX to the MacArthur Highway in Valenzuela plus a 5-kilometer elevated extension to the Port Area in Manila, thereby facilitating people and cargo traffic between the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport and the pier area in Manila. Construction of this portion will begin in early 2010.

The third will be a P16-billion, 13-km, totally elevated skyway over the existing railway tracts, connecting the NLEx with the South Luzon Expressway (SLEx) in Buendia, Makati. A Memorandum of Agreement between the MPTC and the state-owned Philippine National Railways to allow the use of the airspace above the PNR rails was inked early this year. This NLEx-SLEx Skyway Connector will cut travel time between the two great highways to only 15 minutes.

Fourth, MPTC is now in final negotiation with Citra Metro Manila Tollways Corp. to increase its minority stake in the SLEx so it could help hasten the construction of the Skyway between Bicutan and Alabang, at an estimated cost of P10 billion.

NLEx and SCTEx. In August last year, Metro Pacific Investments Corp. (MPIC), the parent firm of MPTC, acquired a controlling 67 percent stake in the NLEx from the First Philippine Holdings Corp. and Benpres Holdings Corp. for P12.3 billion.

NLEx is the most modern tollway here, at par with international standards. Its 48 closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, strategically placed along its 92-km span, monitor traffic and detect over-speeding vehicles all the time. It also operates 381 CCTVs showing all transactions in all tollbooths 24 hours daily.

The NLEx connects with the new Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEx) over which it has an operations and maintenance contract. The

SCTEx, in turn, links the modern Subic Bay International Container Port, which was finished in July 2007, and the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport in Clark into a logistical hub.

Other tollway projects being eyed by MPTC and other companies are the extension of the NLEx to La Union; the connection of the Star Expressway in Batangas to the SLEx and its extension to Bauan, Batangas; as well as the extension of the Coastal Expressway along Manila Bay, all the way to Nasugbu, Batangas, via the tourist havens of Hamilo Coast and Punta Fuego.

On a purely commercial basis, these long-term projects may not be viable due to insufficient motorist traffic. However, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, which funded both the

SCTEx and the Subic Port, has shown willingness to finance the Tarlac to La Union expressway at the same concessionary terms. A private consortium of Filipino contractors has also expressed interest to finance, construct and operate it.

“Three wells” and “sp.” To show how serious MPTC is in modernizing Philippine highways, it has brought – in cooperation with its French partner, the Egis Group – the officers and board directors of its affiliates (Manila North Tollways Corp. and Tollways Management Corp.) to France to observe how super expressways are operated. Egis is one of the biggest expressway operators in Europe.

Led by MPTC president Ramoncito Fernandez, expressway enthusiasts – including me – saw how well engineered, well-constructed and well-maintained tollways result in safe and pleasurable motoring. More important, the “three wells” and the inseparable “sp” spread progress to the whole country. Tollways are the arteries of the nation. When healthy and smooth, they bring nutrients and strength to the body politic. But when neglected and clogged, they lead to decay and death.

From Paris non-stop to Lyon, we rode the TGV trains. At 350 km per hour (kph) cruising speed, they are the fastest things on wheels. (The Maglev in Shanghai, which zooms up to 501 kph, does not run on wheels; it levitates above its tracks.) We were whisked to Lyon (about the same distance as Manila to Laoag) in two hours. Indeed, MPTC should also invest in super trains to complement its tollways. But that’s another story deserving a full column someday.

* * *

Comments Off on Tollways for progress

Filed under Columns

Comments are closed.