In other countries, rivers are avenues for transportation and not just dead waterways that collect silt and filth. In these parts in a kinder, gentler time, Pasig River, all 25 kilometers of it, served as such an avenue as well as the center of life and commerce. It was the Pasig that allowed Manila to grow around it.
But unimpeded population growth and urbanization, along with the negligence of both the government and the people, choked the river, and it soon became a fetid, silted mess.
Factories emptied their wastes into the Pasig, and informal settlers did the same from their shanties built on the riverside.
From being the pride of the city and a symbol of its glory, the river became a sign of how badly things had gotten for Manila. How tragic that it is now dead, or incapable of sustaining marine life. Today, only horrific things can be found there.
Yet Filipinos still turned to the river for transport. After aborted attempts in the 1980s and 1990s, the Pasig River Ferry Service (PRFS) began operating in 2007, and thereafter notched an on-again, off-again history.
Initially running through five stations from Guadalupe in Makati to Escolta in Manila, this first iteration boasted two catamarans that could ferry 150 passengers each in air-conditioned comfort, with the end-to-end trip taking a mere 55 minutes.
Commuters recall that the ferry was “ideal for those who allot a regular time for their trips,” and that it was possible to take a restful nap in transit. The ferry even had lavatories and life vests for passengers.
Alas, the PRFS did not thrive, though it soldiered on. The Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission operated the next version, but it lost P94 million due to a steadily shrinking number of passengers, frequent cancellation of regular trips, complaints on the river’s foul odor and the sighting of strange objects in the water, and engine trouble, among other factors. This operation was scuttled in 2011.
In 2014, as a response to “many problems in public transportation,” the PRFS was revived by a group led by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority then chaired by Francis Tolentino. More stations were added but the PRFS operated in a limited fashion, hampered by the worsening condition of both the Pasig and the boats themselves, which had deteriorated through the years and were now dirty and had no air-conditioning.
Though ideally the ferry service would have been a worthy alternative to congested land traffic and crowded MRT trains, it became almost a quaint afterthought for commuters.
That was then. Here again is another stab at making it work.
Late last week, the government announced a new endeavor, with the ferry service being bid out to private contractors.
According to Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, this ambitious new system, called the Pasig River Ferry Convergence Program, will start operations before the yearend and will be completed by 2022.
The project involves the building of 12 new bridges across the Pasig by the Department of Public Works and Highways,
the rehabilitation of existing stations and the addition of 17 new ones, and, of course, the purchase of new craft to ply the waterway. The end goal is to have at least 24 air-conditioned ferries, each carrying 50 passengers.
“The plan is really to have a comfortable, predictable and reliable ferry system, because right now what we have is kind of spotty. We don’t know whether they will come on schedule. So the plan is to have a ferry system that is regular — every 15 minutes, and comfortable,” Diokno said. “We want it to be competitive with bus, jeepney and Grab, as this is convenient. There will be no traffic on the Pasig River. When you leave Marikina, within 45 minutes you’ll be somewhere in Binondo. There’s no congestion.”
The planned ferry service will not only be convenient but also potentially life-saving when the feared earthquake hits, per Diokno’s reckoning.
“Even in severe weather, [the ferry] can operate, unlike other means of transportation. And it can be an alternative: When the ‘Big One’ strikes, it might be the only means of transportation [available].”
A possible game-changer, if it does materialize. In these times when the Metro Manila traffic results in daily losses of P3.5 billion, the Pasig River ferry ought to ease the apocalyptic nightmare that plagues all of us.
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