Editorial: For whom the bell tolls

Sun, Aug 06, 2006 - Page 8

On Thursday, the Administrative Supreme Court upheld the ruling of a lower court that struck down the Ministry of Transportation and Communications' selection of the operator of the electronic toll collection system (ETC) for the nation's freeway network.

The ruling is another blow for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, which is struggling with wave after wave of criticism over allegations of first family misconduct and poor government performance. For President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), this is particularly bad news. Although the deal with Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co was signed before Minister of Transportation and Communications Kuo Yao-chi (郭瑤琪) took office, Chen is bound to take a hit over this debacle, because Kuo has been a long-time ally of his, going all the way back to when Chen was Taipei mayor.

Making the government look even more silly was the sight of Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) describing the ETC selection process as "flawless" and "successful" to a group of journalists just before the verdict was delivered. Jolly but sloppy politics will not stand Su in good stead.

The ETC system has been a target of criticism from various quarters for months. In addition to complaints of excessive charges being imposed on motorists, the failure rate of the system's equipment attracted attacks from the opposition, especially the People First Party, which seems to take real pleasure from going after the government's record on transportation infrastructure.

Further complicating the situation were allegations that Far Eastern fabricated ETC test results to qualify for the bidding process. Lo and behold, last week three Far Eastern executives were indicted by prosecutors on charges of fraud and breach of trust for falsifying the results. This made the ministry look even worse for its defense of the bidding process.

The question that must now be asked is this: How can this mess be cleaned up while minimizing any inconvenience to the public?

Since the contract with Far Eastern has been declared invalid, who will run the ETC system? The ministry has said it will ask Chunghwa Telecom to temporarily co-manage the system with Far Eastern. However, a new tender process must take place.

Far Eastern has expressed reservations over participating in the bidding again. As for the other companies, the fact that the successful firm will have to take over the project midway through will surely dampen interest, despite the potential for profit.

From the ministry's perspective, then, ensuring a smooth transition and launching the system with minimal extra costs and delays will be a big hurdle.

There is also the problem that work already completed by Far Eastern must be paid for by the ministry as well. How to calculate the value of this work will give the ministry another headache and potentially give rise to another round of disputes between it and Far Eastern.

Su indicated last week that the most important thing was to learn lessons from experience. This is all very well, but it doesn't change the fact that some people just aren't capable of learning no matter what they experience, and that the patience of the public is running very thin these days.