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April 29, 2017

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FETC takes a mile but only gives an inch with the public

Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co. (FETC) has been the most talked-about company in Taiwan recently, and it was not about something that the company hoped for. Since the new highway toll system was launched on Dec. 30, 2013, the eTag electronic toll collection system has become the main method of payment for drivers using highways.

However, the FETC has also been receiving numerous complaints from drivers over the eTag system falsely charging them. Transportation Minister Yeh Kuang-shih (葉匡時) demanded last Wednesday that FETC compensate drivers whose highway toll fees were falsely charged by the eTag system, but FETC insisted on only paying drivers back for the exact amount they were falsely charged.

FETC announced last Thursday that drivers can be compensated for double the amount that they were falsely charged, and this policy can be applied to those who were falsely charged from Jan. 2 to the end of this year.

Far Eastern Group (遠東集團) Chairman Douglas Hsu (徐旭東) yesterday apologized four times over the eTag issue, but he also said that if eTag customers are not satisfied with the system, they are welcome to return the eTag machine, which will make it hard for them to pay the toll fees.

Hsu's speech quickly triggered a dispute, which is understandable since he was basically asking people who are not satisfied with the FETC's service to stop using the eTag system instead of trying to correct the mistake. What Hsu said was not acceptable because this is not the first time that FETC has been under fire regarding major issues that concern the public's rights.

One of the major issues that the FETC encountered in the past was the low utilization ratio of vehicles installing onboard units (OBUs), which forced the company to switch to the eTag system. However, many OBU users who purchased the units were forced to switch to eTag in order to receive highway toll credits after returning the units.

Even though OBU users could receive credit as highway toll fees after switching to the eTag system, this policy ignored the fact that not every driver wants to use the FETC's highway toll system. The FETC could not execute the highway toll system and the Transportation Ministry did not step up to stop the FETC from messing up this major highway policy that concerns all drivers' rights.

The Transportation Ministry also should be responsible for issues that the FETC create, since this build–operate–transfer (BOT) project was contracted to the company. It was not necessary for the ministry to contract a major project such as this to a company, but the officials claimed that it is cheaper and more efficient to hand this project to a professional team.

However, drivers do have the option to install the eTag system and the government did not emphasize that. The government's promotional strategy made most drivers think that it was mandatory for them to install the eTag system in order to use Taiwan's highways. When the government does everything it can to help a company make profits, it will make it hard for people to trust the government's actions.

The issue that the Transportation Ministry has with the FETC bears many similarities to the issue that the ministry has with the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR). The eTag system and the THSR are both BOT projects that the ministry contracted to private enterprises, and now both of the systems have experienced issues that affected people's rights and the ministry has not done anything but let those two companies get whatever they requested.

The government should stop verbally blaming FETC or Hsu for making emotional speeches and start to make people's rights the priority. This way, people can actually convince themselves the government is on their side.

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