Alfonso de la Parra
Director General
View from the Top

Improve Service to Improve Roads

Tue, 11/01/2016 - 22:49

Q: How far along is the development of Mexico’s roadmap?

A: Roads serve over 80 percent of freight transport in Mexico and they also are the favored mode for travel. It 182 helps that most of the main roads are already finished. We have a comprehensive network that stretches from Tijuana to Mexico City and from there to every corner. The primary roads are now more accessible and transit times have been reduced.

Secondary roads that feed the primary routes are a different story. They remain a work in progress. On the one hand, central areas like Jalisco and parts of Puebla are relatively developed and meet practically all road needs. On the other hand, states such as Chiapas or Oaxaca and the Sierras throughout the country are either falling short or have roads that are in awful shape. Mountains make these areas an expensive challenge to maintain but project implementation is not impossible. Along the west coast, the road that goes north from Manzanillo to Chiapas has taken a tremendous step forward. The project started by connecting Acapulco, Zihuatanejo and Puerto Vallarta. This upgrade has made the Puerto Lazaro Cardenas airport more interconnected and the south of Guerrero and Oaxaca are also making good progress.

The road that leads from Tuxpan to Tampico in Veracruz is almost complete. Unfortunately, security is an issue that hovers over the project as some areas are dangerously isolated, such as the Sierra Maya. The central belt of the country has roads that need expanding, such as the Mexico-Queretaro route, which has the heaviest traffic in the country. This trip can be dangerous because it is a well-known and heavily used route for trucks. Its traffic needs to be analyzed to consider the possibility of adding another road or implementing a different management structure. The secondary road to Morelia was supposed to decrease traffic on the Mexico-Queretaro route but this did not happen.

Infrastructure is a condition for growth and historically, the conditions in Mexico facilitate road construction rather than railroads or other transportation methods.

Q: As a consultant, what issues do you see in Mexico’s toll-road system?

A: The problem is focus or perspective. With toll roads, what needs to be understood is the productivity of these projects and their financial success depend on traffic volumes. When there is not enough traffic, costs need to be adjusted. Toll roads need traffic to be productive because these roads do not only connect cities and towns, they provide an added value service. Ultimately, they are a business. Unfortunately, when costs need to be cut the first area hit is operations, which puts the quality of service for road users at stake.

In 2008, we compiled a document listing requirements for toll road concessionaires that addressed the needs of those who use the roads. If customers are paying to use a road, they should receive something. The operator is responsible for providing adequate signaling, maintenance, cleaning, the installation of lights and basic services that can help in emergency situations. Road concessionaires also should provide ways to detect issues, such as with intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and method, and have specialized supervisors who oversee the roads. These services are the first to be cut when there is a lack of funding. Customers then are expected to pay for a service that has no added value compared to a free road. Thankfully, many of the new concessionaires have changed their view about quality and service, such as those that own Arco Norte, Atlacomulco-Maravatio and Morelia-Guadalajara, where service and routine maintenance is offered. This is yet to be seen with some of the older concessionaires.

Q: What necessitated the new guidelines Tecnopeaje helped the government establish?

A: Traditionally, road operations were seen as an extension of the construction phase and collecting tolls and customer service were incidental. The new guidelines present a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of road operations, where user safety and service are paramount. The educational process within the industry centers on engineering, which includes building and maintaining infrastructure and operations. In other types of construction the engineer generally leaves after a project is completed and the operator has the responsibility of administrating it. When it comes to roads, the engineer stays on the project but either does not care about service or is not qualified to address it. A person specialized in management should take over, not an engineer who does not see the importance of service quality.

Q: What impact does technology have on efficiency and safety, particularly ITS?

A: We design and install ITS. Globally, technology is having a massive impact on infrastructure and the efficiency of road design, yet Mexico is not up to par. It does not matter how innovative a machine is, if it cannot be used properly there is no point in spending millions. Analysts and sensors are important because without the examination of data, expensive equipment such as ITS is useless. It should not be implemented if a profound analysis is not being actively pursued. Few operators have implemented this technology. Some are interested but are not willing to spend the necessary capital. SCT is encouraging the use of ITS and the Mexican Transport Institute strives to make changes but due to a constrained budget, progress has been slower than expected.

Q: What benefits can the industry reap from having external support in the planning process?

A: It is vital to have supervising bodies that can ensure the implementation of government regulations and accountability for actions, services and situations and how those are handled. With the use of external road operation supervisors (SEOs) and fatal accident appraisers (DAGs), there are consequences for not taking action to correct the cause of an accident, for example. Thanks to changes in government regulation, operators now are expected to have stock of safety beacons and other appliances to replace damaged equipment.

Groups of outside and trained supervisors can be used to gather neutral data. There are many supervisors who have no idea what they are doing because they are only looking at infrastructure technicalities. The job is meant for trained and specialized personnel because infrastructure must be built to last for a considerable period of time and standards of service have to be consistently high. I think supervision is one of the tools that could change the industry’s mentality.