Infrastructure Investment News Analysis

Towards an integrated road, rail and river network

The Pasig River, Manila’s longest waterway, could play a role in alleviating traffic congestion that snarls up the city’s roads every day. It won’t be cheap; it won’t be easy; but if a large commercial operator can be found, an efficient Pasig River ferry service with links to road and rail systems across the Philippine capital, could play a part in a new integrated transport network for this city of close to 13 million people.

The history of ferrying people along the river from Pasig City to Makati City has not been a happy one. The last commercial operator, Nautical Transport Service Inc. (NTSI), folded the service with losses of US$2 million in around 2009. Passenger numbers had fallen, terminal infrastructure was poor and badly maintained, and the water was heavily polluted with factory run-offs, human waste and discarded debris.

After a partial clean-up of the river, led by the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission and the Department of Transport (DOC), the route from Pinagbuhatan in Pasig City to Plaza Mexico at Intramuros, reopened in 2014. New vessels were commissioned, terminal facilities were improved and better transport links were encouraged.

Today, the MMDA – a government agency under the Office of the President – is the main operator of ferry services along the waterway. Last year, more terminals were re-opened, five new fiberglass ferries came into service and the river’s clean-up and dredging programme continued.

The Pinagbuhatan to Intramuros ferry system currently comprises 11 terminals, including Guadalupe and Valenzuela in Makati. But although passenger comfort have improved – thanks in part to the new 45-passenger-capacity ferries which have replaced the oversized craft operated by NTSI which carried 150 people – and pollution levels have dropped, though this is still a problem, the service is still a long way from being commercial. The average daily passenger carriage is 500 people. And that’s a far cry from its medium-term potential which has been estimated at close to 1.5 million.

NTSI failure, according to a Commission of Audit report, was that the company had deviated from its original plan to deploy 18 ferries, each with a 50-seat capacity, in favour of six 150-seaters. Long wait times at the terminals for passengers to fill the vessels, resulted in the public seeking alternative transport.

In May last year, Arnel Ty, a representative of the consumer-lobby group, LPG Marketers’ Association, urged the National Economic Development Authority to consider a ‘Pasig River Metro Ferry Service’ to be included in the Public-Private Partnership scheme. His organisation believed that there would be investor interest, especially if the right to exploit passenger terminals for retail/commercial purpose was made part of any concession.

Certainly, the MMDA would like to turn the ferry system over to a private operator.; and this was always the plan. Its job has been as a caretaker; to keep the project afloat and get it into better shape. In the words of then MMDA Chairman, Francis Tolentino: “The MMDA only serves as the catalyzer for the river ferry project. Private operators will handle it eventually”.