Manila's river ferries beat traffic but dogged by costs

Manila's river ferries beat traffic but dogged by costs

MANILA - It is a novel solution to an epic problem: Assemble a small fleet of river boats and use the 26km Pasig River that snakes through four cities to circumvent metropolitan Manila's monstrous traffic jams.

For 34-year-old accountant Rose Regalario, that option has been heaven-sent. It has cut the time she spends commuting each day to her office from her home 16km away to 1½ hours, from up to four hours.

But a river ride is not for everyone, and unless the government steps in with huge subsidies, it is a social experiment that is bound to fail - again.

This is not the first time the government tried to use Pasig River to ease the capital's gridlocks.

Twenty-four years ago, it convinced local shipping giant Magsaysay Lines to bankroll a 15km service that ran from Manila to the financial hub of Makati. That lasted for only a year, because it was bleeding money.

Another ferry service was launched in 1996, the Starcraft Ferry. Thirty catamaran-type air-conditioned boats were fielded, each able to carry 30 passengers. Two groups fought over the concession, but the one that got it failed to make it work, with the service shut down after a year.

In February 2007, then President Gloria Arroyo inaugurated a third, more ambitious service. There were fewer boats, but they were larger. Each was able to ferry up to 150 passengers, and each had on-board entertainment and toilets. It also ran through the entire length of Pasig River with 17 stops.

That experiment lasted till December 2010. Then it was shut down after suffering 94 million pesos (S$2.7 million) in losses.

In April this year, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) - tasked with finding ways to ease massive traffic jams expected from big infrastructure works set in motion by President Benigno Aquino - again turned to the Pasig River. It fielded smaller, faster boats stripped of creature comforts to contain costs.

"We made it more efficient," said Ms Morena Oca, operations manager of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, one of MMDA's partners.

She said smaller boats are easier to fill with passengers and can be dispatched with regularity.

For passengers, that means less time waiting at the terminals. For the operators, it means more fare coming in.

There are 10 ferries in service now. The smallest one can carry 12 passengers, while the bus-type ferries can seat up to 40. Those who have tried it say the river ferry service does indeed beat traffic.

Mr Macario Reyes, a 59- year-old retiree who used to work for a shipbuilding company, now leaves his car at home and takes the ferries whenever he wants to go to a flea market in Manila that he frequents.

"It's cheaper, and I don't have to drive for four hours. I can go to Manila and be back in less than two hours," he said. But the same problems that hobbled the first three ferry services remain.

In this case, the solution may be a problem itself: the river.

Despite efforts over the years to clean it, the Pasig River remains a cesspool.

Thousands of informal settlers and factories that line its banks dump garbage faster than they can be removed. That turns the river the colour of crude and comes with an unpleasant smell.

For most passengers, however, the fare of 50 pesos is the main deterrent. It is just too steep.

And this had been the previous experiments' fatal flaw. The river ferry service is never meant to be profitable. It is a public service that will always require government funding, which usually depends on where the political winds blow.

During non-peak hours, a ferry sometimes sets off with a single passenger. The private operator has already pulled two of its boats out of the regular runs.

Ms Oca, the operations chief, said that there will be a review of the service on June 30 to determine what new directions to take.

She said there are plans to augment the operations' income in ways such as offering tourist packages and advertisements at the terminals.

The MMDA is also planning to develop locations near the terminals into tourist destinations themselves. One such plan seeks to develop the old district of Escolta in Manila into a "food hub".

Mr Reyes, the retiree, said he has seen river ferry services in San Antonio, Texas, and in Greece, and the Philippine version just pales in comparison.

"I would say we're only at 20 per cent of what they have, but it has potential," he said.

"We just need the political will to make it work."

This article was first published on June 17, 2014.
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