Sun, Aug 13, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Far Eastern withdrawal opens new possibilities

By Lai Fu-shun (賴福順)

The announcement on Friday by Far Eastern Group that it would completely withdraw from highway toll collection begs discussion of the nation's toll systems.

Most countries, such as France, Japan, Australia and China use the exit toll system. The majority of toll highways in the US use it as well. Under this system, drivers take a ticket or use their electronic toll collection (ETC) device at highway on-ramps, drive happily on, and then pay with cash or have money deducted from their ETC card at the toll collection station when exiting the highway.

The exit toll system has many advantages. Traffic is unobstructed, on-ramps and off-ramps can be monitored, fees are based on mileage, and traffic flow is relatively light.

In Switzerland an annual fee system is used. Under this system, drivers buy their yearly passes at the start of the year. The annual fee is about NT$1,200, and car owners attach the pass to their windshield for unlimited use. There are some advantages to this system, but the disadvantages are that the pricing system is not particularly fair, and traffic police are burdened with enforcing it.

A few toll roads in Taiwan and the US presently charge a flat fee per section of road. The disadvantage with this system is that high traffic flow causes delays, and every car burns a considerable amount of gas braking and accelerating when lining up to pay.

The charge-by-section system is also unfair because there isn't a uniform distance between collection stations, nor do drivers all travel the same distance. The fact that one Taiwanese toll station can have six different forms of payment also makes the system unnecessarily complex. It also tends to draw more complaints from users than other systems.

The National Freeway Bureau (NFB, 高速公路局) actually discovered the flaws in the charge-by-section system more than 10 years ago when planning National Highway 5, and changed some of the collection stations to exit toll systems accordingly.

But because of bureaucratic meddling, the current system has been extended until the end of the ETC agreement on July 1, 2010, before finally changing to the exit toll system.

Some drivers say that their ETC device fails to register 60 percent of the time when they are traveling above 50kph or in bad weather. By comparison, the ETC device registers every time under the exit toll system, just as Easycards work almost perfectly in Taipei's mass rapid transit stations.

Because the original agreement between the government and Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co was flawed, the Administrative Supreme Court rejected the NFB's appeal to overturn a lower court ruling annulling the contract.

However, the Ministry of Transportation and Communication wants to transfer the ETC system to Chunghwa Telecom, and reports say that Chunghwa's employees are already preparing for the second round of bids.

Under the current plan, the 220,000 cars with ETC devices already installed can continue to use them and a new exit toll system originally planned for July of 2010 will be immediately implemented, off-ramps will be widened and toll plazas built.

The ETC software will be modified, and finally the old toll booths on the highway can be dismantled.

It's possible that doing this right may help the government, Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) and President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) shake off their reputation for incompetence.

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