The road to hell is paved with ERP gantries


Squeezed in more ways than one

Hell may be too strong a word, but that’s how some of us feel on the dreary Monday morning commute to work.

In this letter on TODAYonline, the writer laments that worsening road congestion in Singapore shows the ineffectiveness of the ERP system and urges the LTA to come up with better solutions. While not explicitly stated, you sense that the writer may be a little too optimistic in hoping that the government will agree with him and scrap the system altogether. In another letter published last week, the writer blamed the ERP for costing him time with his family and asked the authority to alternate ERP timing between the AYE/ECP and PIE. How bizarre is that?

ERP is not going away, unfortunately. In fact, that road congestion continues to worsen merely strengthens the argument that charges are not high enough to deter more drivers. Now is this the pragmatic solution the first letter writer wants to see?

Right now, most drivers pay anything from $1 to $10 a day to get to their workplace and back. The unlucky ones pay even more if they have to pass through more gantries or if they have no choice but to travel during the busiest of peak hours. And spare a thought for the navigationally challenged ones who could somehow cross the same gantry more than once. It is a significant cost to many, especially when it adds up to more than a few hundred dollars a month. However, the sense of loss is mitigated as the deductions are split into smaller amounts.

As evident, the current charges do not bite hard enough on many drivers, at least not enough to force them to change their driving habits drastically or even ditch their cars completely. Most just grumble and pay up. But how about $20 a day or even more? Everyone will cry foul of course, but surely it will drive the message firmly across that it does not pay to drive?

$20 or more a day sounds exorbitant, but if it really works to reduce congestion won’t it finally allow us to do away with the COE? In fact, it’s not as crazy as it appears. Imagine if you incur ERP charges 5 days a week, 52 weeks in a year for ten years. $20 a day would sum up to $52,000. The current COE price for small cars, at $63,000, equates to $24 a day based on such an assumption. Most people won’t even drive with such uniform frequency for ten years, so won’t you prefer to pay a daily ERP charge of $20-$25 each time than fork out over $50k for a COE that you’ll probably also have to pay interest on?

Maybe I over-simplified. But the premise remains true that one should get charged for usage and not ownership, thus rendering the COE system flawed and ERP as the truly equitable system. Indeed, in a perverse way COEs incentivise owners to drive more since they’ve already paid so much for them.

The authorities know this of course, so what’s stopping them? Cynics will say the COE is too lucrative a cash cow for the government to forego, which could be true. But I’m guessing the main reason why they are not doing it is the same reason why drivers are not giving up their cars as yet: our public transportation network is far from ready for it. As most will agree, the current network as it is is a shambles and ill-prepared to handle the population explosion witnessed in the last ten years. If even 10% of drivers were to switch to using the MRT daily, pandemonium may ensue. Also, scrapping completely the COE system that has been in place for more than twenty years is a risk the government may be unwilling to take on.

So for now, everyone’s stuck in a bind until the MRT network increases its capacity with more lines and greater frequency. Other ways to soothe the situation is to decentralise, as I mentioned in a previous post, and to stagger working hours. There has been no concerted effort on either so far. With high COE and continued road congestion despite ERP, people are naturally unhappy.

Ultimately a comprehensive and efficient public transport network is the best solution to road congestion, and not COE or ERP. If the train to town takes 30 minutes as opposed to 1 hour by car, without any extenuating circumstances, boy you must really love driving to choose the latter.