TO be quite frank, I think the Pasig River Expressway (Parex) scheme, a P95-billion undertaking of government with the San Miguel Corp., to build a 19-kilometer elevated expressway along the banks of the Pasig River, is a stroke of genius, a brilliant out-of-the-box idea. It would run from the Radial Road 10 in Manila all the way to Taguig, with several exits along its course, including one to skyways leading to the NLEx and SLEx.
I should know. Many years back, I was with a study group that researched and brainstormed how the horrendous Metro Manila traffic that was costing the country at least P4 billion daily could be solved.
None of us thought of a highway along the Pasig River. This was probably because at the time, it was so polluted, its banks (especially along Pasay and Manila) sickeningly crowded both with the poorest squatters and big-business warehouses, that it seemed impossible to imagine these areas being cleared for decades.
Now, a permanent solution is being offered by SMC head Ramon Ang: his Parex project would clean up the entire length of the river that passes through the metropolis, at an estimated cost of P9 billion. And why would his project do that? Because that is both a requirement for the expressway to be easily built (with squatters of course cleared) and frankly, a throw-in to sweeten the deal with government.
But it’s not a totally new idea. Many cities in the world have major arteries built on their riverbanks, among the more well-known being the FDR Drive in Manhattan and the Pompidou Expressway in Paris. The latter though was partly converted into a promenade after half a century of use.
It would be a permanent cleanup, as Parex would have to make sure the river remains clean of debris and pollution. Much of the banks of the Pasig River and extending to not more than a few meters from its edge are unused, unclaimed space, except for some stretches occupied by warehouses of old businesses that ferried their products through the river to Manila Bay. Therefore, acquiring right-of-way in a litigious society wouldn’t be so expensive and time-consuming, so that SMC even optimistically estimates it could be built in two years. As the highway will be built on empty space basically, there wouldn’t be the massive disruption and consequent traffic that accompanied the construction of the elevated highways and light-rail transit infrastructure that cut through the metropolis.
As usual, out-of-the-box solutions are incomprehensible and even frightening to small minds or those so up in the clouds they dream that metropolitan Manila can be transformed into a green garden in a few years’ time, as Singapore or Taipei authorities are planning, and everyone will be walking or riding bicycles to work.
Their protest against Parex in this age of the internet has been exaggerated — “rivers of doubt,” according to a Philippine Star columnist, “storm of outrage” by one in this newspaper. Lies are spread to make it seem such a preposterous idea, such as the claim that the expressway will be in the middle of the Pasig River or cover most of it. (It will be on the banks, with the posts supporting it, according to SMC, 1 meter to the river, whose maximum width is 200 meters.)
While the internet has made vast information available to just about anyone, through a few clicks on the keyboard, it has also given the intellectually dishonest the fodder to present fake proofs for their biases.
For instance, one of the most vocal and prolific critics of Parex, architect Paolo Alcazaren, to argue that the Parex is a bad idea, says that Seoul tore down “Cheonggyecheon, where a skyway was torn down to revert the area to its original state.”
Alcazaren is being dishonest. What he refers to is part of a river in Seoul that was entirely covered up to build first a 6-kilometer roadway in 1958, which gave way to a 5.6 km-long elevated highway in 1971. Nearly half a century later, the highway was torn down, after it had served its purpose during those years when Korea was still poor and struggling to develop. (Parex would only be by the riverbank, extending to 2 meters at most to the river.)
The Cheonggyecheon elevated highway in fact, along with similar infrastructure that made Seoul a traffic-free city, has been cited by several studies as one of the factors that made Korea an attractive place for foreign investments, which led to the country’s development. In the half-century, Korea became much, much richer, industries and people moved out of Seoul such that the highway was no longer needed as it was in the 1960s.
However, if Alcazaren wants to do a “Cheonggyecheon,” there is a “Cheonggyecheon” in Makati City over which he should undertake a campaign to demolish: the Mile Long commercial strip which had been “leased” to the Rufino-Prieto clan by the Marcos government, with the anomalous contract rescinded by President Duterte two years ago. Like Chonggyecheon, Mile Long covered up a stream in order to build the commercial complex.
Similarly, a colleague in this newspaper ferociously slammed Parex — planned and studied since 2016 by SMC engineers, both local and foreign — on grounds that it is an elevated highway, which kind of infrastructure he says is a “stupid and dumb idea straight out of the environmentally unfriendly 1970s.” In the first place, Parex is indeed an elevated highway but on the banks of Pasig, and not the “elevated highways” crisscrossing cities that he is referring to.
However, I decided to expend some time googling to verify his claim that over 30 cities in the world are getting rid of such elevated highways because they are “stupid.”
I’m afraid my colleague is lying, probably thinking that no one would bother to check his facts. Why, I also have internet, and certainly can google.
All of the cities my colleague cited are demolishing or planning to demolish their elevated highways not because they proved to be bad ideas, but because having been built in the 1950s and 1960s, they have either outlived their usefulness or are in such a state of disrepair that their maintenance costs have become prohibitive that city planners think it better to demolish them.
I’m surprised why my colleague, an American, hasn’t heard of the US’ crisis in infrastructure, which has been estimated to cost $1.6 trillion to correct. The over 30 cities he claims have been removing their elevated highways not because they were based on “dumb ideas.” Rather, these decades-old highways have become dangerously in disrepair that they have to be replaced with new ones which of course incorporate new environmental values and technology.
The environmentalists, however, have latched on to the problem, insisting that new infrastructure be more “green,” or the space left be converted into parks, and have launched a “new urbanism” movement that has become chic in elite circles.
Just to give two examples of the cases my colleague cited, but which doesn’t have anything to do with his claim of cities demolishing elevated skyways because they are from the “dumb idea straight out of the 1970s.”
He cites Seattle in Washington state, by which he can only be referring to the demolition of the Alaska Way Viaduct. According to the report by the state’s department of transportation: The elevated highway was “built in the 1950s, and decades of daily wear and tear took a toll on the structure. The structure was weakened in the 2001 earthquake, requiring emergency repairs. Because of the viaduct’s age and vulnerability to earthquakes, replacing it was critical to public safety.”
He cites Massachusetts, by which he can only be referring to the demolition of Route 79/138. The state’s transportation department explained why it has to be demolished: “Over the years, the Route 79/138 concrete bridge decks, steel superstructures, and steel and concrete substructures of the viaducts and ramps deteriorated and corroded significantly to the point of requiring on-going emergency repairs. Since 1999, about 94 percent of the structural steel superstructure was rated as structurally deficient.”
What bothers me is that when I asked where he got his information, my colleague said partly “from various states’ government websites.” We were reading the same websites, but he is reporting it wrong. Why would he?
I am astonished for my colleague to claim that elevated highways are a thing of the “tacky and environmentally unfriendly 1970s.” This is so wrong, and I wonder if he has ever been to New York City. That city’s elevated highways — the Miller Highway for example — were mostly built in the 1920s, although after being used for nearly a century, many are in a state of dangerous dilapidation. Yet without these highways, New York couldn’t have been a bustling city of the world, as metro Manila will never be if it doesn’t solve its traffic problems, even through a Parex-type of elevated highways.
I can only surmise that my colleague was terribly half-asleep when he wrote that only Metro Manila in the whole world has a plan to build elevated highways. He didn’t google that one obviously. Because it has been the best solution (other than the more expensive underground subways) for huge cities to bring in hundreds of thousands of people in and out of their centers. You’d see elevated urban highways in the biggest cities in the world (Bangkok, Tokyo, Shanghai, Osaka) and more are being planned in the newer emerging megacities, such as the Dwarka Expressway being constructed to be finished next year.
But being a brilliant plan doesn’t mean a perfect plan, and SMC must be open to changes in its Parex plan. Parex will change the face of the metropolis, as much as the Skyway 3 has. SMC’s Ang should make sure his plans are evaluated and checked many, many times to the minutest detail and taking into account every contingency possible, as it would either be the metropolis’ infrastructure debacle or its glory, and he will forever be identified with it.