Pasig river, trying again

Sometime soon and God-willing, the 25 kilometer Pasig river will once again become a vibrant transport route for commuters like it was during precolonial and colonial times. Connecting Laguna de Bai to Manila Bay, the river has always been a major trade route for the distribution of goods from Asian and Middle Eastern ports; from the 16th century to the middle of the 19th. It was a major conduit of the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade. With the Marikina and San Juan Rivers as main tributaries, the Pasig is viewed as a workable alternative to the maddening land traffic of Metro Manila and environs.

In recent years, there were serious attempts to revive the Pasig river route. Magsaysay Lines operated the Metro Ferry in the early 1990’s servicing a Guadalupe-Escolta route and in 1997, Star Ferry plied the 16.2 kilometer stretch between Bambang and Escolta. However, neither was sustainable for lack of government support by way of infrastructure, that is, the construction of comfortable, safe passenger stations. There was barely any support for the de-clogging and cleaning of the river so its stench was unbearable. There was no compensation for low ridership, much less subsidies for expensive maintenance and operational costs. More importantly, no provisions were made for seamless travel from disembarkation points to final on-land destinations.

Around a decade ago, Nautical Transport Services, a joint venture of foreign and Filipino groups led by Penta Capital Investment Corp. (75 percent) and Sydney-side cruises, Ltd (35 percent) won the government bid. The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTr), the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) , the Maritime Industry Authority and Unilever comprised the Technical Working Group which laid down the groundwork for the revival and sustained operations of Pasig River ferries. Other members of the project team were the Light Rail Transport Authority and Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission. Through the latter, the government secured a loan (US$75 million) from the Asian Development Bank to finance the construction of 15 passenger stations.

Sydney-side Cruises, Ltd, deployed brand new, air conditioned ferries with clean restrooms, regular and express schedules plus tourism and sightseeing services. Because the Pasig river is considered a missionary route, Sydney-side was awarded exclusivity for five years to ensure visibility and an attractive return on investment. In Manila, the passenger stations were located at the foot of Jones Bridge, Plaza Mexico in Intramuros, Arroceros Park, Nagtahan Bridge, Polytechnic University of the Philippines in Santa Mesa, Santa Ana market and the Lambingan Bridge. There was one in Hulo (still in operation), Mandaluyong and Bamban, Pasig, three in Makati at Valenzuela, Poblacion and Guadalupe Bridge, and another three in Marikina at Marcos Bridge and Santa Elena.

Lamentably, the project fell through: The ferries, although comfortable and clean, were much too large for low density consumer traffic. When a devastating typhoon struck Manila, most of the stations were inundated and became unserviceable.

I am concerned about the heritage sites, settings and landmarks along the Pasig river as the “Three Major Areas of Concern” of the Pasig River project only specified transport, recreation and tourism. Heritage was not included (unless they think this is the same as tourism). There are relocation plans to create space for walkways, parks, and green areas. I hope they remember that Manila, Santa Ana (formerly Sapa), Intramuros, Pasig, San Juan, Makati, Santa Mesa were ancient settlements; Escolta and Binondo were bustling commercial centers during colonial times while Arroceros was the site of parians where rice was traded. . In old Rizal, Pateros, Taytay and Laguna there are vestiges of our past that should be integrated into modern, urban revival plans. I hope they realize that heritage sites should not be demolished for when conserved, these can actually enhance the Pasig River Ferries project.