Time to take a reality check

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes - The Philippine Star

During San Miguel Corp.’s 131st anniversary last September, company president and chief executive officer Ramon Ang noted that everything they have achieved comes down to their higher sense of purpose which guides their common mission, and that is to make life better for Filipinos, even if that means challenging the status quo and shaking things up along the way.

Instead of focusing its time and resources mainly on money-making activities, SMC has undertaken projects that will help achieve its mission of making Filipinos’ lives better.

SMC has for instance removed over 400,000 metric tons of solid waste from the Tullahan River through a cleanup program that started last year but is aiming to do much more by adding new equipment.

Then there is the MRT-7 project of SMC which is expected to be having the first passengers by December next year. Just looking at the train sets that have arrived (a total of 108 brand new coaches or a total of 36 train sets will be made available) makes one proud to finally have a world-class public mass transport system in the near future. And I am not even talking about the traffic decongestion that the project will contribute. The 22.8-km long elevated rapid transit line which will run from North Avenue in Quezon City all the way to San Jose del Monte in Bulacan is already creating quite a stir. Economic activity in San Jose del Monte has increased tremendously, with real estate developments happening left and right. And why not? The 800,000 passengers that the project can serve daily no longer have to suffer from traffic and can reach their place of work in just minutes.

We are also equally excited about the upcoming New Manila International Airport in Bulacan, another noteworthy project of SMC which will have four runways, eight taxiways, three passenger terminals that can serve around 100 million passengers annually and will serve as an alternative gateway to NAIA.

According to top urban planner Jun Palafox, the airport project will be the first pacesetter for green cities in the country. The aerocity that will be created will adopt green architectural and urbanism guidelines over and above the country’s building and zoning codes, feature an innovating hub where learning institutions and technology-driven global companies can thrive, the latest in digital infrastructure, lots of open spaces, among others.

And while accomplishing all this, SMC is spending its own money to clean up Pasig River. In just three months, the company has managed to remove over 54,000 metric tons of silt and solid waste from two of the river’s shallowest sections in Manila. SMC aims to extract a total of 600,000 metric tons a year of silt and waste from this biologically dead body of water, a project that will cost a whopping P2 billion.

And now we have the SMC’s Pasig River Expressway (PAREX) project that will provide a direct link between the western and eastern cities of Metro Manila via an elevated expressway and aid in decongesting three major roads, namely EDSA, C-5 and R-10.

PAREX is very costly for SMC. The project will cost around P100 billion and proponents of toll road projects such as this will have to wait for many years before realizing a return on their investments.

But Ang insists on investing in key projects that may not necessarily give the company immediate returns, but which the country and its people badly need.

The brickbats being hurled towards PAREX’s proponent are mostly half-truth, if not outright lies.

Contrary to claims by a certain Robert Siy that PAREX was rushed, no less than the Toll Regulatory Board emphasized that the technical, financial, and legal aspects of the project went through a long and tedious vetting process for two years.

Siy and the likes of him can learn a lot from Ely Ouano, who has a doctorate degree in environmental engineering and a retired principal environmental specialist at the Asian Development Bank, and has invalidated many of these critics’claims. Ouano was part of the ADB-funded government initiative called the Pasig River Environmental Management and Rehabilitation program, a costly failure for our government.

Contrary to claims that urban expressways lead to greater car use and ultimately, to more congestion, pollution and climate change, Ouano has pointed out that our country’s private car ownership policy which is linked to our foreign policy i.e. various trade agreements with other countries, is a matter that should be addressed to the government, not the private sector.

Who would buy a vehicle just because the roads are nicer? If there is a good mass public transport system in place that could bring one from Point A to Point B at a lower cost and in a shorter amount of time, then why drive a vehicle? Blame our government for our policy regarding private car ownership in this country.

There are also some critics who say that while we are building elevated highways, developed countries are demolishing theirs. This is an example of a half-truth as well as a distorted one. Ouano explains that cities in developed countries have demolished elevated highways because they have outlived their usefulness and are no longer appropriate to the needs and demand of its population. As a developing country, we need these highways because these roads are the only means to efficiently connect us to our place of work, to our markets. The many hours spent by the working-class Filipino, by vehicles that move goods around, due to traffic translate to huge economic costs.

Siy also claims that PAREX will destroy Pasig River which serves as the lungs of our city or the channel through which fresh air flows in and out of the arteries of the metropolis, Ouano replied that “unless taking a deep breath of hydrogen sulfide, a very toxic corrosive gas, is considered healthy, Pasig River today and the immediate future is more of the rectum of our city than the lungs.”

The sad fact is that Pasig River is an open sewer and the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission which has spent billions of pesos of our funds and borrowed money from foreign institutions only to accomplish so little with no effect whatsoever in terms of bringing the river back to life.

Meanwhile, as to a proposal to build instead a landscaped riverside walkway and parks along Pasig River,

Ouano noted that the ADB approved a $175-million loan to the Philippines for Pasig River’s environmental management and rehabilitation which is supposed to include the establishment of a 10-meter easement for the 29-kilometer stretch of Pasig River on both sides to accommodate pedestrian walkways and bicycle lane, mini parks, among others.

The project was supposed to be completed January 2006, but after delays and extensions, it was closed on March 5, 2009 because it was considered ineffective, less likely sustainable, and overall unsuccessful. The project completion report said one of the reasons for the failure was it was overly ambitious in scope and implementation. With this, $98 million went down the drain, and the loan has to be repaid by present and future generations of Filipinos.

Our government, with ADB funding, already tried to do but failed to accomplish what these critics are proposing as an alternative to PAREX.

How can a landscaped walkway, a beautification project, be an alternative? Can a walkway solve our traffic problem?



For comments, e-mail at mareyes@philstarmedia.com

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