I recently went to Baguio City for a wedding and since we booked airfare for this trip in advance, we were not able to try the new Bacolod – Clark route of Philippine Airlines that was launched last December. What we did get to try was the new set of highways that were supposed to make the land trip to Baguio faster and convenient.
The last time I went to Baguio was the latter part of 2009, almost a decade ago. I don't remember the details of the road trip then but I have memories of it being long and arduous. Aside from the route that took us mostly through towns and cities, my kids were quite young then and we had many in-car accidents that added to the agony of that trip.
This time around, we left Mandaluyong City around 5 a.m. and were at our destination in Baguio City's South Drive by 11:30 a.m. The trip may still seem long but take note that we had a rest stop at one of the expressway gasoline stations and a side trip to Our Lady of Manaoag Shrine and the detour, the prayers/sightseeing and the exit back to MacArthur Highway probably cost us an hour. I reckon that if we didn't stop for anything, we could've been in Baguio by 10:30 and that would've given us a total trip time of just a little over 5 hours. That is a big improvement from the days when it almost took 8 hours to get to there.
What made this possible was the improved NLEX (North Luzon Expressway) and new TPLEX (Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway) that started in Balintawak and ended in Pozorrubio. Driving in a closed expressway is definitely more convenient and safer that passing through all the towns and cities between Baguio and Pampanga. If I cut the trip into segments, I estimate that it took us about an hour from Mandaluyong to the Balintawak tollgates, 3 hours to cover the 190 kilometers to the Pozorrubio exit of TPLEX, and another hour or so along MacArthur Highway to Baguio City.
The use of the expressways cost us around P610 in toll fees but was definitely worth the savings in time, safety and convenience. It was faster and safer because there were no pedestrians, farm vehicles and animals, rice drying, tricycles and jeepneys to contend with and avoid as on most provincial roads. There was a relatively reasonable speed limit of 100kmh that we mostly obeyed because of stories of its strict enforcement via radar guns or speed traps.
The expressway made me wish the island provinces also had their own. I don't know if there are enough Negrenses willing to pay P610 for 190 kilometers (that's Bacolod to Hinobaan) of fuss free and speed-limited driving, because that's what a tollway operator would probably charge since investing billions in a closed expressway is a private sector effort in this country; but there's no harm in wishing.
If I had any complaints, it would be for the connection between the NLEX and the TPLEX to be more seamless. Exiting one highway system and entering another means additional and unnecessary tollbooths which ultimately lead to congestion. I think the operators of both expressways are talking about an integrated payment system and hopefully they work the kinks out before I go back to Baguio, which if my pattern holds, should be another decade from now.
My other very minor issue is the speed limit. The minimum of 60 and maximum of 100 kph is a good start but highway designers and operators shouldn't stop there and target at least a min/max of 80/120kph. The expressway operator and whoever is responsible for setting the speed limits probably thinks that the skills of Filipino drivers and the general condition of their vehicles are unable to handle speeds beyond 100kph safely but it would be nicer and more efficient if vehicles could go a little bit faster inside closed highways. It may take a generation before Filipino drivers are disciplined enough and the vehicles we drive are maintained well enough to be safe for regular travel at high speeds and that should be a common goal of expressway operators and the government's Land Transportation Office.
A cheaper toll fee would always be nice, especially for those who have to use that road more often than guys like me who go once every 10 years, but if ridiculously cheap or free rates mean it will end up like the MRT, those who complain about the toll fee can always take the old or alternate routes. Hopefully the regulatory bodies responsible for tollways always have everybody's best interests in mind.
Proper highways are a luxury for most Filipinos but as our government goes on a build build build spree, it should be an option. Here in Negros there is the newly completed and currently expanding Bacolod Silay Airport Access Road and work has reportedly started on the Economic Highway. Both are nice additions to our road network but do not look like they were designed or planned as proper highways. We don't have to have closed highways like the privately operated NLEX, TPLEX and SCTEX of Luzon but with a bit of foresight and engineering, the highways our government is currently building could be somewhere in between what we have now and what the private sector has to offer.
Publicly built highways with proper exits, on ramps and shoulders and without intersections or sidewalks can be possible if our local and national government officials can work together. It wouldn't have taken much to make the BSAAR more expressway-like and if our government really wants to upgrade it from a glorified farm-to-market road into a something that resembles a proper highway, it can still be done. I don't know what it's designed to be, but the same could be said for the Economic Highway that is being built right now.
It is possible for Negros to have a proper highway. Hopefully our leaders, bureaucrats and technocrats who can make it possible agree.*
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