Photographer Miguel Nacianceno lives less than a kilometer away from the Guadalupe bank of the Pasig River. He passes by the area almost daily either by car or by bike, often for work or to visit family. He recently posted pictures of the river and it’s environs on Facebook: of a barge sailing thru the water; of kids hanging out on the riverside steps; of what looks like a dad teaching his son how to bike. “We always say Metro Manila needs more greenery and public spaces. The Pasig River gives us that,” reads his caption. “We just need to do better by it. We're so lucky to have it!"
For Nacianceno and so many more Metro Manila residents, the river has been part of their daily grind. “While the river itself may be dead, the areas around it, the whole metro and communities, are teeming with life,” he tells ANCX. “The banks of the Pasig River is lined with heritage sites, government agencies and offices, corporations, factories, middle-class housing, subdivisions, condos, schools, greenery, and public spaces.”
This is why news about the proposed construction of a 19.37-kilometer six-lane, elevated expressway that will be built over the Pasig River worries Nacianceno. According to San Miguel Corporation (SMC), who is footing the bill for the 95 billion peso project, the PAREX, or Pasig River Expressway, will decongest Metro Manila traffic. But what will be its effect to people’s quality of life? Open public spaces like the river and it’s environs provide respite, says Nacianceno. “It’s important to our collective physical and mental well-being. Building a road over it takes away so much from us.”
All systems go
Social media has been abuzz over the proposed expressway for weeks now. SMC has announced on its website that “it’s all systems go” for the project which SMC president Ramon Ang said is not only meant to “help ease traffic” but also “boost our economy, and improve the lives of so many Filipinos in Metro Manila.”
Ang had in fact already held groundbreaking rites last September 24 in Pandacan, Manila. Present were Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, and Public Works and Highways Undersecretary for Planning and PPP Service Maria Catalina Cabral.
The event sparked protests from different groups. As of this writing, 76 organizations and over 6,435 individuals have signed the petition to stop the construction of the proposed expressway. The change.org petition is very clear on its stand: the Supplemental Toll Operations Agreement (STOA) for PAREX is “Pasig River’s death sentence.”
What SMC calls “the country’s first green, hybrid expressway” will traverse the entire Pasig River—from Radial Road 10 in Manila to C-6 Road or the South East Metro Manila Expressway (SEMME) in Taguig City. It will have entry and exit points in Manila, San Juan City, Buendia Avenue, Mandaluyong City, Makati City, Rockwell, EDSA, Bonifacio Global City, and C-5 in Taguig City.
In an online press briefing held Wednesday, Sunny Sevilla of Move as One Coalition, explained their position. “Hindi kami tutol sa infrastructure [development], hindi kami tutol sa expressway,” he says, stressing that he had supported infrastructure projects during his term as Finance Undersecretary.“Tutol kami sa PAREX dahil una, hindi magiging maganda ang epekto nito sa ating kapaligiran. Pangalawa, masisira o mahaharang nito ang natitirang kakarampot na bakas ng ating kasaysayan. Pangatlo, hindi nito malulutas ang problema ng traffic, bagkus lalo pa nitong mapapalala ang sitwasyon,” he says.
According to the anti-PAREX petition, “Spending billions of pesos to build another expressway will only encourage people to drive more than they otherwise would. This well-documented phenomenon is known as induced demand. The most progressive cities around the world such as San Francisco, Boston, Seoul, Tokyo, Utrecht, and Paris are actually dismantling their inner-city or elevated expressways to improve mobility, revitalize their rivers, and protect their environment and heritage. PAREX will be a repeat of the mistakes progressive cities have made decades ago."
Sevilla says they have tried voicing out their concerns with the TRB (Toll Regulatory Board) about the said project. The coalition had written the Board sometime in April requesting for project details. They got a reply the following month saying the project was still being reviewed and evaluated. The coalition wrote again in June requesting for a chance to have a dialogue with the TRB. Sevilla got an assurance from the board that they are looking into the matter. The coalition also furnished the DOTr, DPWH, DOF, NEDA, and Ramon Ang a copy of the said letter.
“Umaasa kaming makilahok sa usapan ng PAREX,” Sevilla told the media. “Kaya nabigla kami nang malaman namin na aprubado na pala, napirmahan na. Ni wala pang environmental clearance from the DENR, ground breaking na.” ANCX is awaiting reply from the DENR if indeed an environmental clearance has not been issued.
In a recent statement sent to the media, SMC denied allegations that PAREX is anti-poor and will only benefit those who use cars. According to the company, the expressway will accommodate multiple modes of transportation. The project will also integrate a modern and efficient public transport system in the form of a Bus Rapid Transit, bicycle lanes, and pedestrian walkways.
SMC also said there is no truth to assertions that constructing an expressway will worsen pollution and encourage people to buy more cars. “It is not expressways that induce people to buy more cars,” SMC insists. “It is poor or insufficient public transportation, pollution, and even personal progress of people. The number of vehicles will continue to rise with or without PAREX. Traffic and pollution will worsen if we do not build efficient, multi-purpose, future-ready infrastructure such as the PAREX.”
SMC maintains that PAREX, apart from decongesting cities, will make trips faster and more economical. It will also help reduce air pollution caused by hours of stand-still traffic all over Metro Manila.
From their lens
Nacianceno has been very vocal about his opposition to PAREX on social media, and he is not the only one among his peers making his voice heard on the issue.
Photographer Joseph Pascual also strongly opposes the project. “Expressways are the worst infrastructure to build especially in a city like ours that needs more robust public transport like rail transport, a rational bus or jeepney system, and more bike lanes,” Pascual tells ANCX. “I find it funny when Ramon Ang talks about mobility. Mobility is about moving people, not vehicles. As many as possible, at the least cost to them and their environment.”
Pascual adds that while the project will be built at no cost to the government and taxpayers, there will still be a big price to pay. “The cost is environmental, people's long term health, and Metro Manila's chance to have a vibrant waterfront district.”
Photojournalist and biking enthusiast Jilson Tiu often passes by the Pasig River during his bike rides. “It’s beautiful despite the pollution. Seeing the sun reflect on the river…the ferry passing by, are signs of life,” he says. “But having a big skyway hover over it will cover the sun and ruin this like what Skyway Stage 3 did.”
Sustainability and inclusivity
Ira Cruz of Alt Mobility PH, a group pushing for sustainable and inclusive transport policies, stressed at the press briefing that 88 percent of Filipino households have no cars. “So yung proposal to build a massive grey infrastructure na 19.37km, 6 lanes sa ibabaw ng ilog, it begs the question: para kanino itinatayo ang istruktura na ito kung ang majority ng mga tao ay nagko-commute sa pamamagitan ng paglalakad, pagbibisikleta, at public transportation?” he asked media.
Bea Dolores of Renacimiento Manila, a heritage advocacy group, shared that as per their research, more than 40 existing heritage structures will likely be affected by the construction of the expressway. Moreover, said Tina Paterno of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, “[PAREX] will certainly disrupt the views of Intramuros, the Post Office, and other historic districts.”
For Paterno, opposing the PAREX and choosing to preserve our heritage is not being anti-development. “In fact, other countries are increasingly integrating heritage in their development,” she says. “Many countries are going back to their past as a vital part of their development. A major part of the world is removing their freeways. PAREX will take us in the opposite direction of sustainable development.”
Former Tourism Secretary Bertie Lim says many countries have developed their tributaries into tourism attractions—there’s the Barge Cruise in France, the Rhine River Cruise in Germany, the Red Bull Race held at the Danube River in Hungary. “Mawawala ang potential ng turismo dahil papangit ang buong kahabaan na dadaanan ng PAREX,” he added.
According to urban planner and landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren, building a skyway over the Pasig River yields more minuses than any pluses for everyone. He echoes the points of view of Paterno in a recent Facebook post. “All over the world, cities are actually tearing down inner-city skyways and vehicular infrastructure, which have been proven to actually add to traffic woes,” said Alcazaren, “while here we still repeat the mistakes western cities have made decades ago.”