When was the last time you got stuck at a toll plaza and wasted a good half hour just reaching the counter? I’d make a guess and say not a long while ago. A long weekend just concluded, and the average middle-class Indian family was probably on a holiday. A long weekend, holiday, and a chance to get away from hectic life – what could possibly go wrong? Getting stuck at the toll plaza is probably an answer we can expect from almost anyone if asked this question.
On a trip from Bengaluru to Chennai during the course of said long weekend, the 350-km journey, that usually takes six to seven hours, ended up taking nine hours. The reason? Congestion at all toll plazas en route. There are six toll plazas on this route, which witnesses the highest traffic in South India. Traffic queueing up on the south-bound carriageway at the Attibele toll plaza and the west-bound carriageway at the Nemili toll plaza is highly indicative of the traffic leaving Bengaluru and Chennai respectively.
If toll plazas are so congested, why not get rid of them?
Not quite. Toll plazas serve an important purpose. A toll road ensures that only those who use a road pay for it. Further, toll roads mobilise private capital in the road construction industry, and give us road quality that would otherwise be unavailable. This of course does not discount road operators who may cheat users, but that is not the case with every toll road.
So toll plazas stay, but what can be done?
The problem of delays at toll plazas can be looked at from two perspectives – before the toll plaza and at the toll plaza.
Traffic chaos before the toll plaza can be attributed to one single cause: lane indiscipline. Drivers want to quickly get to the booth, and end up cutting lanes, or worse, creating a new lane where none exists. But the main cause of congestion is the delay caused in paying the toll fee and leaving. This is arguably a more difficult problem to tackle, but there exists a single solution which is unfortunately not well implemented.
Back in December 2016, during the peak of DeMo, I had written about the sloppy implementation of cashless options at toll plazas. Every toll plaza was offering a credit card machine for those who did not have cash, but this becomes a problem because – let’s admit – card-based transactions are slow.
Thus, we realise that Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) using FASTag is the solution to fixing the toll plaza mess. But then, implementation of FASTag is an even bigger mess. Why? Let us take a look.
FASTag, developed by the Indian Highways Management Company Limited (IHMC), a tie-up between the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) and the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), is a Radio-frequency identification (RFID) sticker that is affixed on the front of a vehicle, similar to the E-ZPass used in the United States.
The operation of FASTag is simple: An RFID tag is affixed to the front of the vehicle. This tag is linked to an account where the user adds money, similar to a prepaid card for a metro rail. When the vehicle approaches the ETC lane at a toll plaza, a sensor reads the tag, deducts the money and the gate opens. The process of manually entering the vehicle number, printing the ticket, collecting the fare, and handing over the change (if any) is completely eliminated. Further, since the platform is digital, records can be accessed online.
Back in November 2016, barely a few days after DeMo was announced, practically every tea vendor and chaat stall on the streets of major urban cities began accepting cashless payments. Most of them accepted Paytm. Why? Paytm had people everywhere, convincing people to join the platform. Did we see something similar for Unified Payment Interface (UPI)? No. No bank had its employees go from shop to shop to extoll the virtues of UPI. However, in March 2017, YES Bank did have a few stalls located in various parts of Bengaluru to promote its UPI app, PhonePe, a time when cash was back in flow and people stopped bothering with cashless alternatives. Even today, many people drive into an ETC lane because they do not know what FASTag is– They see an empty lane, they drive into it.
While a lack of awareness is one thing, lack of implementation is a bigger problem. Half the toll plazas have an ETC lane that is not operational. Vehicles with the tag are forced to use the regular lane where someone with a sensor scans the tag mounted on the vehicle.
Like every other corridor, the Bengaluru- Chennai corridor is no exception. ICICI Bank – the implementing bank for FASTag – lists five of the six toll plazas en route as point-of-sale (POS) counters to purchase a FASTag. However, only two of them (Krishnagiri and Nemili) actually sell them. At two of the remaining three (Vaniyambadi and Pallikonda), we were told that there existed a counter but it was shut down. At the remaining toll plaza at Chennasamudram, there was no answer. The most congested of these plazas at Attibele is not even on the list on ICICI’s website. At Krishnagiri, we were told that the POS counter was not yet open while at Nemili we were told that the sales-in-charge was on a holiday during the same long weekend. Throughout this long weekend, when queues at toll plazas stretched for over a kilometre, we were given the same excuse – counter closed because it is a holiday, counter closed early, counter opens late, and more such excuses that we are accustomed to hearing at a State Bank of India branch.
Among the first major toll plazas to feature an ETC lane, the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, which witnesses among the highest traffic in the country, has ETC lanes just for show. The ETC lane has a booth with an operator selling tickets for cash-payers. This is also the case with toll plazas along the Mumbai-Bengaluru-Chennai stretch.
The US state of Virginia charges a fine of $65 for entering an E-ZPass lane without a valid tag. While this cannot be replicated in India due to lack of awareness, ETC lanes need to be off-limits for those without a tag. Fines should ultimately be imposed if someone enters the lane without a tag.
How do we solve this?
One, sell FASTag at every toll plaza that accepts it. Ensure that they are sold every day of the week, especially during peak hours. Further, open more POS counters within cities so that people don’t have to go to a highway to buy them.
Two, penalise concessionaires and operators who don’t have functional lanes. What is the point of getting a FASTag if I have to wait in regular traffic to pay toll? The ‘Fast’ in the name becomes redundant.
Three, expand the use of FASTag. It was designed for not just tolls, but also parking lots. This will interest people, especially the urban Indian who spend a bulk of their time looking for a parking lot.
Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari gave us a lot of hope when he launched FASTag in 2014, but the lacklusture implementation says, ‘Who cares about tag payments, let’s just pay in cash and go’.
If the government is not really serious about rolling out FASTag, which seems evident from the implementation, it might as well scrap it and go back to the cash-based system.
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