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All you want to know about the new Ro-Ro ports

/ 09:20 PM April 28, 2011

AMONG THE useful World War II relics that have been adapted for peacetime use is the jeep and the Ro-Ro sea vessel. The wartime jeep has been transformed by Filipino craftsmen into the jeepney that has become the primary means of transportation in many areas of the archipelago. “Ro-Ro” is short for the “Roll On-Roll Off”; it refers to a seagoing vessel that has become an important means of transportation between islands of the Philippines. The front of the vessel opens, and trucks and other vehicles can be driven into and out of the hold of the ship, hence the name Roll On-Roll Off. During the war, it was used to ferry tanks, trucks, weapons carriers, jeeps and troops from the invasion ships to the beaches.

The Ro-Ro has become very useful for peacetime use because it saves valuable time in loading and unloading cargo. Before, gangs of stevedores had to carry cargo on their backs up and down gangplanks, to and from the holds of the sea vessels, which took many hours. With the Ro-Ro, trucks, with their cargo on board, are simply driven into the hold. (The passengers sit on the deck above.) When the Ro-Ro arrives at its destination, it simply lowers its front and the trucks are driven out. What took many hours, even days, of loading or unloading in the old ships, now takes only several minutes. Within a few hours, the Ro-Ro is ready to make the trip with a new cargo and new batch of passengers.

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However, not all Philippine ports have piers that can accommodate Ro-Ros. The piers have to be on the same level as the gangplank of the Ro-Ro so that the trucks can be driven into or out of it. Most ports in the Philippines are good enough only for small fishing vessels.

When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wisely conceived of the “Nautical Highway” from Northern Luzon to the tip of Mindanao, the plan needed ferries to transfer passengers, vehicles and cargo from one island to another. Passengers are not difficult to ferry from island to island. Even a banca can do that during fair weather. But with vehicles and cargo, it’s a different story. The answer to that is the Ro-Ro. But with the Ro-Ro, you need ports and piers adapted to it. When a survey was made of the number of Ro-Ro ports needed for the nautical highway, the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) found out that we would need 234 Ro-Ro ports by the year 2034.

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Ro-Ro ports can be constructed the old way: with concrete and steel. But they would be too expensive and take too long. Moreover, shallow portions of the sea near the port would have to be dredged, hence the marine environment would be disturbed, with possible disastrous results to marine life.

Fortunately, there is a technology that can provide Ro-Ro-capable ports cheaply and quickly. And a Spanish consortium, SIATEG S.A. signified its interest to provide such modular port technology to the Philippines when GMA visited Spain in 2006.

SIATEG S.A. wrote that it has “a modular technology on Roll-On Roll-Off Ports Facilities that can be easily and immediately installed and assist the strategic expansion of maritime infrastructure in the Philippines.”

It also represented that it has the “technical expertise and capability to facilitate the design, manufacture, supply and installation of the said technological facility.”

The Ro-Ro port would be made of steel. It can be dismantled quickly, transferred and reassembled on another island as needed, thus it would be much more advantageous than the old concrete ports that are expensive, permanent and immovable.

The proposed modular port technology underwent evaluation by the PPA’s Engineering Office. The PPA Board approved the project in 2007 on condition that it would be the project implementor and will shoulder the administrative costs, but that the national government will be the borrower of the loan, and that the project shall be exempt from taxes and duties. Thereafter, the project was evaluated and finally approved by the National Economic and Development Authority in December 2007.

However, on Jan. 23, 2008, the PPA wrote Philippine Ambassador to Spain Luis Arias Romero that SIATEG S.A. had not fully complied with the requirements needed to conclude the project and therefore PPA was considering other countries and suppliers for the project.

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Six months later, the French Consortium of Eiffel-Matiere SA submitted a proposal to undertake the approved GMA Ports Project with a financial offer by BNP Paribas, indicating the availability of up to 150 million euros for the project. Neda, and the PPA Board approved the offer and thereafter a memorandum of agreement was signed on May 20, 2010 between PPA and the Department of Transportation and Communications for the implementation of the project.

Now there are criticisms from some sectors—that the project is “overpriced” and that we do not need that many Ro-Ro ports. I do not know where the criticisms are coming from, but some of them could be from Philippine contractors who want to construct concrete Ro-Ro ports.

However, comparing the pros and cons of the concrete ports vs. the modular steel Ro-Ro ports, the latter is clearly more advantageous.

The latter is composed of several interdependent components: the pier or causeway connecting to shore, the mooring platform, the adjustable ramp, the berthing dolphin, a fenced backed-up area, and a passenger terminal with solar powered utilities. These parts can be assembled and disassembled at different port sites.

It can be constructed within an average of two months, compared to the three to five years it takes to construct concrete ports. It can resist impact from boats and, with proper maintenance, can have a lifetime of 80 years or more.

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