The revival of the Pasig River Ferry comes across as an afterthought, but it’s a welcome idea just the same in view of the traffic gridlock feared to occur when an estimated 15 road projects get underway all at the same time in Metro Manila. (As it is, the traffic situation is a recurring nightmare.)
Because its 25 kilometers snake right through the metropolis, the Pasig River has always been a promising travel alternative to the overwhelmed roads. In recently urging the government to act on that promise, Sen. Ralph Recto said: “We should now utilize this nautical road. It’s toll-free and ready to use.” Indeed, at last month’s Traffic Management Summit, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chair Francis Tolentino announced the plan to reactivate the dormant river ferry service.
Last Wednesday the MMDA invited the media to cover the test run of its proposed “river bus” service, in the hope of grabbing the attention of prospective passengers and investors. From the photographs the river bus didn’t look like much, being quite ad hoc: a 40-seat passenger bus body bolted unto a tugboat, so unlike the ferry boats that used to be employed on the Pasig River. A total of three former rescue tugboats have been converted for ferry use, the MMDA said.
But the river bus took an amazing hour and a half to get from Guadalupe in Makati City to Intramuros in Manila, plodding along at an underwhelming five knots. Tolentino attributed the slow pace to the big number of people on board, and assured the public that the actual service would be faster than the previous ferry’s 45-minute travel time. He also said the river bus fare would range from P20 to P25, much less than the previous ferry’s P65.
The MMDA’s calendar is ambitious: It intends to make the 14 stations along the length of the Pasig River fully operational by June. And Amy Gamay, information officer of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), expressed confidence that commuters would choose the river bus over conventional land transport, even claiming that the unpleasant smell emitted by the river waters “is no longer that strong compared to previous years.” Tolentino hinted that three private companies were interested in operating the river bus service and that the MMDA would in time step away to let the private sector take over.
Progressive cities of the world use their waterways for the fast and convenient transport of people and cargo. Attempts have been made to use the Pasig River for this purpose, but the enterprises quickly folded for mostly financial reasons. Starcraft Ferry Corp. plied the Pasig River during the Ramos administration but had to cease operations because of money and management issues. The PRRC, in partnership with private groups, operated the Pasig River Service from 2007 to 2011 but suffered multimillion-peso losses because of low passenger turnout and financial problems, forcing a shutdown of the venture.
Yet in other parts of the world, river ferries and water buses have proven to be just the thing to unclog crowded streets, and turn a profit besides for their operators. Venice in Italy has a water bus line that helps cushion the impact of over 20 million people who visit the river city yearly. Bangkok, a city notorious for its clogged roads, benefits from express boats and ferries plying the Chao Praya River. New York’s East River Ferry moves thousands of people and is seen as a magnet for attracting construction and investment on the river’s east bank.
Surely something can be done—perhaps short-term government subsidy?—to make the river ferry project lasting. (The last we looked, the ease of doing business in the country was said to have improved.) There is admittedly a lot of tasks ahead for the MMDA in this venture, including, according to Tolentino, the rehabilitation of at least four stations and the dredging of shallow portions of the Pasig River. The MMDA should make it work this time, if only to provide a bit of relief in the lives of great numbers of people grappling with traffic in the metropolis. Let this river run be a working alternative to some Filipinos’ daily torment.