With the new year, Taiwan introduced a significant change to its drivers: toll collection now takes a new shape from the existing pay-at-tollbooth to the new pay-per-kilometer system on the national highways.
In other words, drivers no longer have to pay their tolls at the toll booths scattered around western Taiwan, but instead pay according to how many kilometers they drove. This is calculated using a new electrical device called eTag.
eTag is developed by a Taiwanese company called FETC (Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co.), and serves as medium to record the mileage usage of individual cars through interaction with numerous FETC inductors along the highways.
On December 30, 2013, Taiwan’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) officially announced the commencement of the new payment system. Along with the launch, highway tolls would be waived for three days, and a total of 23 highway toll booths were officially closed for further demolition.
Do people embrace it with joy?
Transitions can take forms in many ways, this one, however, is not pretty.
Before and after FETC launched its first ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) service on Taiwan highways back in 2006, controversy never left the company. Bribery lawsuits and doubts of collusion between the company and government shadowed ETC and it subsequent services.
When the government officially announced the overall adoption of ETC during the end of 2013, things only became worse.
Not only did the rumors regarding collusion and bribes intensify, over 900 toll booth staffs are out of jobs as the 23 toll booths were being forcefully shut down. Apart from that, it is also questionable whether such transition is of any economic value: the National Freeway Bureau now passed an annual budget of 1.7 billion NTD to pay FETC, compared to the original 1 billion allocated to labor cost.
According to both FETC and NFB, the let-go of over 900 booth toll staffs would be either transferred to be part of FETC or receive a 7-month wage pension. However, there were only 56 staffs who were accepted as FETC employees due to FETC’s miscellaneous employment requirements.
On January 3, staffs held a protest in front of MOTC as an outcry to their plight of unemployment and difficulty to secure another job based on their lack of working skills.
So, where are they going to end up at?
How’s the company doing?
FETC on the other hand, has not live up to people’s expectations: its system faced a broke down in the middle of a peak hour; its newly introduced user app cannot be used at all, and has even been put temporarily out of service. The ability of FTEC to meet the transportation needs and its responsibility is now under the spotlight and is highly questionable.
Of course, on the brighter side, total usage looks positive. According to FETC’s estimate, so far only less than 300,000 cars have not installed eTag, a significant improvement considering that there are a total of 6 million cars on highways. For each car, the first installation of eTag is free, and drivers are required to make a first top up of 400 NTD (about 13 USD) for each eTag account.
So, what’s next?
Up until today, I can still recall the days when my father used to take our whole family to go hiking. We would hit the road, passing one toll booth after another, handing out our toll fees to the lady or sir in those small cubicles. Those days represent a sense of nostalgia, and such feelings would soon start to fade away with toll booths gone.
The oldest toll booth which served nearly 40 years. (source: CNA)
Now we would drive for our hiking spots without ever having to stop.
In the near future, it is predictable that every car would be installed with eTag, and everyone pays their tolls similar to how we would pay for our subway rides or through our credit cards. As most aspects of our lives go digital, a complete infrastructure and the proper corresponding policy are essential for the complete transitions.
In the case of this renewal of toll booth system in Taiwan, it is unfortunate that it wasn’t dealt with transparently and properly, causing frustration among the local community.