The Pasig River figured in Jose Rizal’s “El Filibusterismo” and it was through this novel that I first encountered this inland waterway. When I was in primary school I learned that Malacañang Palace where the President of the Republic resides is located along the Pasig River. My actual sighting of the river came a bit later when I started to work in Makati. I passed over Guadalupe Bridge from Quezon City where I used to reside on my way to the office. I did not find anything remarkable during those bridge crossings and I figure it was because during those days one just breezes through EDSA with hardly a minute’s chance of glancing at the river below. There was no traffic in EDSA then.
Through the years, my awareness of the Pasig River grew with the romanticized accounts about the river, with young men and maidens on boats leisurely cruising along its banks and children of yore with memories of swimming in clear waters still etched in their minds. The years passed and like anyone else, I began to gain wider awareness of the world. The Pasig River became a reference point when traveling through Manila as I continued to live and work in the city.
However, it was not until joining the Maritime Industry Authority that I became immersed in the issues surrounding the Pasig River. The operation of any vessel in Philippine waters including those in bays and rivers is governed by a franchise according to the Public Service Act the grant of which is lodged with MARINA. Likewise, the Tariff and Customs Code, archaic as it may seem, has some provisions pertinent to the provision of transport services in the country’s bays and rivers. The small banca engaged in river crossing or known to its clienteles as “tawiran” is covered by a franchise.
It was also during my stint in MARINA when I noted the increased interest in capitalizing the use of the river as alternate route for passengers, whose ways pass along the cities of Manila, Mandaluyong and Makati. While before, only “pituyas” (as boats carrying the fish catch from Laguna Bay are called) and tow tugs and barges carrying grains, steel bars or oil were operating in Pasig River, passenger ferries were soon introduced.
The appreciation of having the Pasig River ferries was sadly short-lived as the riding public soon complained of the stench and the irregularity of the trip schedules. In addition, safety and security concerns on the access to the ferries were raised, especially during rainy days. The inadequacy of readily available connecting transport service from the riverbank further discouraged passengers from using ferries.
On the part of the ferry operator withdrawal from the river was principally on account of financial loss due to high maintenance cost and the waning passenger patronage. Maintenance cost of the ferries was extremely high since the vessels have to be lifted out of the water to clean the propellers, where water lilies and garbage routinely get snarled. Normally, cleaning propellers could be done underwater, but is rendered impossible by the murky waters of the Pasig River. Several operators have since attempted to operate ferries along the river and soon also opted out.
It would be interesting to know how the present operator, the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is faring. Of course, the MMDA Pasig River ferries are there to provide an alternative transport service to ease the perennial traffic woes on the roads, as supplement to the mass transit systems.
Pasig River ferries: Optimizing inland waterways
As Government aggressively works to find a solution to the monstrous traffic that hounds everyone in Metro Manila, sustaining the operation of ferries in the Pasig River (not necessarily those of the MMDA) is being mulled. This is a proposal that must be welcomed by everyone.
The challenges encountered by previous operators must be addressed. Cooperation among Local Government Units (LGUs) is a must, especially on the matter of safety and security since they assume responsibility over terminals, which fall under their jurisdiction. Cleaning the Pasig River is a must. How extensive the cleaning must be is dependent on how far we are willing to go to attract passengers to patronize the ferries. Too, defining the prospective passengers is essential. For example, how are the ferries traversing the Chao Phraya River of Thailand able to attract its passengers? These are always teeming with passengers even during non-peak hours. Tourists, students, businessmen, office workers including government employees, traders and practically everyone take the ferries along Chao Phraya. Can we duplicate this system?
I heard Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade speak with much enthusiasm about the point-to-point buses from the north to Makati and the shuttles that will transport passengers between the airport terminals. As taking the bus is being made enjoyable and pleasing to attract car owners to take public transport, the same concept must be adopted when offering the Pasig River ferry service. Make passengers feel ferry crossing like they’re on a cruise.