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Pasig River Expressway: Is PAREX a traffic solution or an environmental concern?

By Ayie Licsi, Hannah Mallorca, and Saab Lariosa Published Oct 15, 2021 7:46 pm

Is the Pasig River really dead? How will PAREX actually change the transport system for Metro Manila?

With the upcoming construction of the Pasig River Expressway (PAREX), the 19.37-kilometer proposed PAREX located on the skirts of the Pasig River is feared to become Metro Manila’s next “photobomber” as it reportedly adds a concrete slab on the crowded metropolis.

With heated debates among urban planners, engineers, and groups,  PhilSTAR L!fe spoke with mobility and environmental advocates on the implications of the controversial expressway—and what could be the possible alternatives.

A bird’s eye view of PAREX

PAREX is a six-laned, 19.37-kilometer elevated expressway that will run through the banks of the Pasig River. The project proponent is San Miguel Corporation (SMC) in partnership with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

It seeks to connect Metro Manila to the province of Rizal while promising shortened travel time between Manila to Pasig, providing a link between the east and west sides of Metro Manila.

The project, which will reportedly cost SMC P95 billion, will also link up to Skyway Stage 3 from Nagtahan to Plaza Azul.

“I believe this project is bound to be one of the most impactful projects during the time of President Rodrigo Duterte, in terms of integrating the social, economic, and environmental needs of our people,” SMC President Ramon Ang said during the groundbreaking ceremony on Sept. 24.

Still, many mobility and environmental groups have called out the project over the alleged haste by which it was approved and its reported environmental impact, especially upon the Pasig River.

A ‘big step towards car dependency’

For public transport advocate and Move As One Coalition member Robert Siy, PAREX is “a big step toward car dependency.” 

Siy echoed the concerns raised by landscape architect and urban planner Paulo Alcazaren on how building more roads like PAREX will only worsen the traffic situation in Metro Manila based on experience with urban expressways from other cities worldwide.

“If we build PAREX, the message on traffic is that you can move faster if you have a car; it motivates people to pursue greater car use. It is also only a temporary promise because more cars on PAREX will eventually congest it which sets our sustainability objectives back even further,” Siy said.

The mobility advocate also slammed Ang’s statement, saying that the number of vehicles would continue to rise nonetheless, with or without PAREX. 

“People will migrate to cars only if we leave them no choice,” Siy said. “We need to also look at demographics: young people today have a strong preference for sustainable travel modes  and would avoid using a car daily if they had a choice.”

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The PAREX project outline in its entirety

AltMobility PH representative Ira Cruz also lamented the lack of transport policies in the Philippines, saying that 88% of households living in the Metro Manila and Greater Manila Area don’t have cars of their own.

“For as long as I can remember, we have been building and widening roads, building flyovers but still end up stranded on the road. PAREX will continue this cycle. Induced demand happens where demand increases as you increase supply,” he said. “In this case, roads for cars. While we might experience relief at the beginning, demand will just eventually catch up.”

Cruz, who is also a member of the Move as One Coalition, revealed that the local transportation agency estimated that “we need P14 billion” to create active transport facilities and “P76 billion” for service contracts.

“That’s a total of P90 billion - still less than the P96 billion to be spent for Parex but directly benefits the majority of the commuters without aggravating transport issues and without risking the environment and heritage,” he added.

Accessibility for commuters

In answering mobility groups’ concerns about PAREX only catering to a small minority of commuters—mainly private vehicle owners—Ang said PAREX will be a “hybrid expressway” that can accommodate other modes of transport, including buses, bikes, and pedestrians.

SMC’s project description, however, did not yet include plans for these extra pathways, which could widen the six-lane expressway and take up more of the Pasig River.

“Adding bus lanes and walking/ cycling infrastructure will add to the width of the expressway,” Siy said. “Will buses be at the median or the curbside? How will passengers access the buses?”

He also questioned how other carless commuters would be able to access PAREX. “An expressway above the Pasig would sit, in some sections, about four to six stories high to clear the height of several of the bridges. The elevation would make the expressway difficult to access and climb for pedestrians and cyclists, except for the most physically fit among us.”

“Mr. Ang is describing a very different and more complex project. If a public transport service is involved, the project will need to be reviewed by other agencies such as LTFRB,” Siy said. “If the objective is to offer quality mass transit and walking/cycling infrastructure, making them part of an elevated expressway does not make sense.”

Cruz seconded Siy’s statement, as he questioned the motives behind the PAREX project. “Despite the concerns that we've raised before the Toll Regulatory Board and during the DENR-EMB Public Scoping, we’re not given an opportunity for a discussion. Through the Move as One Coalition, we also reached out to SMC. We did not receive any reply,” he revealed.

Not an environmental tradeoff

Greenpeace Philippines’ Liveable and Sustainable Cities Campaigner RJ Mallari shares the concern that PAREX won’t necessarily aid in mobility and will ultimately take away the effort in cleaning up the Pasig River for the long run.

“We always say in urban planning: ‘putting roads is like obesity,” Mallari said. “You don’t treat obesity by loosening your belt, you solve it by lessening your food intake.”

“We believe that infrastructure development should be for the people, where people should move from one place to another, rather than moving cars.”

We always say in urban planning, ‘putting roads is like obesity.’ You don’t treat obesity by loosening your belt, you solve it by lessening your food intake.

“Greenpeace is for development, but it should not be a tradeoff of what the Pasig River can offer as an ecosystem.”

Meanwhile, Youth Strike 4 Climate co-founder and lead convenor Jefferson Estela believes there are other ways to solve the mobility and traffic crisis without compromising the environment such as investing in “more green spaces, wide sidewalks, and well-planned urban destinations” that will also serve carless commuters.

On the other hand, UP Geography Department Representative Carlo Felipe suggested that the local transportation agency and companies should “revitalize the Pasig Ferry service” since it’s more “sustainable in the long run.” 

Filipino Youth Against PAREX coalition convener Jefferson Estela said a country’s waterways are considered a source of income. However, in the Philippines, they are merely seen “as polluted bodies of water rather than as front doors to development and alternative water sources.”

“We want our waterfronts to feature walkable and bikeable linear parks and promenades that everyone can enjoy, especially the communities nearby. Creating attractive public areas will motivate residents to be better stewards of our rivers,” he added.

Is Pasig River really “dead”?

One of the big arguments that SMC and Ang have made in favor of PAREX is that it will breathe new life into the “long-dead” Pasig River.

Along with the riverbanks of Davao, Iloilo, and Agno, Pasig River has also been dubbed as one of the top 50 rivers in the world that carry the most pollution into the ocean, according to non-profit organization The Ocean Cleanup.

Though Pasig River has seen better days, advocates believe that an expressway would push back its restoration process.

“We need to understand how we classify water bodies in the Philippines in the first place,” Mallari said. “We all know that different water quality assessments are being done, so they classify rivers according to its basic indicator of water pollution, but then again even if they say Pasig River is dead based on the parameters, it doesn’t mean it can’t be revived.”

“Even if it's not in the best condition, it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. It doesn’t mean we can’t revive it,” she added.

The Greenpeace advocate also pointed out that the Pasig River is still closely connected to Laguna de Bay, as it drains excess water from the lake come the rainy season.

“Looking at this connection, how can we say a river system is dead when it connects to a river body that is beneficial to us? We may describe it as a kanal on the surface, but there’s more than what we can see because the Pasig River is part of an ecosystem.”

Estela also acknowledges the river’s waste management problem.

“On any given weekend, you'll see people fishing along the banks, birds flying around looking for food in the water and the hyacinths, and families enjoying the river scenery while their children play. Despite the output of plastic waste, the river is still very much alive ecologically.”

“The Pasig River is one of Metro Manila's few greens, open spaces with cool, fresh air. All of that will change if an expressway is built above the river,” he said.

What’s a possible alternative?

Due to the problems raised with the project, some experts have proposed alternatives.

One such plan is from Alcazaren, who suggested the project be revised into PARES, short for Pasig River Esplanade. In this case, the esplanade running along the river may be built instead with two of 25-kilometer walkways.

Alcazaren's architectural firm PGAA Creatives worked on the Iloilo Esplanade of 2012, which revived the Iloilo River.

“It would only cost 1.5 billion pesos to develop both sides of the 25-km long Pasig River into an esplanade like Iloilo's. The resulting green area would be larger than Rizal Park,” Alcazaren, who shared on social media a draft, said.

Siy shares Alcazaren’s sentiment, saying “definitely, the way to go is to develop riverside esplanades or promenades.”

“Beautiful green public space along both sides of the Pasig would make our metropolis so much more livable. We need to believe this is possible.”

On the other hand, Mallari said that addressing the problem of traffic and environment is “not a one solution fits all” issue, with esplanades serving as a solution for the people, but not the environment wherein Pasig River resides.

“People are the most experts in their localities, they should be the ones that should be consulted,” she said.

Meanwhile, Felipe added that the government should take notes from the Cheonggyecheon restoration project in Seoul, South Korea. The project centered around revitalizing the Cheonggyecheon Stream that used to be covered by a highway overpass. 

“Other countries have already learned their mistakes from building elevated highways on top of waterways. They have already begun dismantling these highways and are now reaping the benefits of rehabilitating their rivers and focusing on pedestrian-friendly and people-centric infrastructure,” he added.

Amid the appearance of the hashtags #NoToPAREX and #YesToPARES on social media, a petition titled “Stop the proposed Pasig River Expressway!” with over 10,00 signatures has also been put up.

Amid the rising chorus of critics, SMC has maintained that it remains committed to building an environmentally sound project that aims to help solve Metro Manila's traffic woes. 

What's next for PAREX, then?

Though SMC has secured approval from the relevant government agencies last month, actual construction may only start once it receives a "notice to proceed" from the government. SMC is hoping to start building early next year if and when it secures the clearance, even amid mounting opposition.

With construction set to start in 2022 and be completed in 2023, the project may still have a long way to go before it sees the light of day, if at all.