There is no doubt that the State owned Transport Board has been having challenges. Those challenges are unfortunately having a negative impact on that entity, but even moreso on the commuting public who depend on it daily to get to and from their various destinations.
Indeed if there was any doubt about the significant role that the Transport Board plays in moving persons across the length and breadth of this island, Monday showed us just how important it is. On Monday when the news broke that the workers of the Board were off the job in protest against a number of grievances, chief among them, the poor condition of the fleet and appointment of employees, hundreds of Barbadians were left stranded not knowing how or if they’d get to work or school, and if they managed to get there, how they would get back home if the strike continued. The privately owned public service vehicles endeavoured to pick up the slack, but it is no secret that the two types of public transportation do not run the same routes in many cases, so it was only so much they could do. Nevertheless, they must be commended for stepping up to the plate.
What has become evident from the strike action is that the Transport Board needs to change its modus operandi if it is to become a profitable entity, and stop relying on Government to stay afloat and make ends meet. For far too long we have been hearing that the Board does not make a profit. This has been the cry of successive governments and yet none have been able to figure out how to effect a positive outlook for the entity. Privatisation has been put on the table as one way of achieving that, but certainly no administration would want to be responsible for privatising the Transport Board as it would likely mean that there would be an increase in bus fares, which have largely remained unchanged for several years and job losses.
Many who have made the suggestion to privatise, have done so off the cuff, not taking into consideration who will pay for the service. The fact is that anyone who takes over the Transport Board would likely have to come back to Government to subsidise bus fares, or the public would have to pay much more than $2 per ride. In this current economic environment that would certainly not be feasible.
The fact is that Government provides quite a great deal money to sustain the Transport Board. Back in 2012, the then Minister responsible for the Board indicated that it was collecting about $54 million in revenue, but its total expenditure was in the region of $120 million, creating almost a $70 million deficit for the State agency. That figure has probably grown by now, which means that if the entity was privatised it would be in the red from day one.
So with that idea not a viable one, the focus has to be on getting the Board to work assiduously on increasing its cash flow. But here is the conundrum – it needs buses to make money, but the fleet of working buses is not at its peak and it has no money to increase the fleet. The Board will have to secure financing to purchase new buses and expand the fleet to ensure that they are operating at maximum efficiency. Those buses should be retrofitted to use clean energy such as natural gas or even solar power, as they would be cheaper to run. The buses should also be air-conditioned and equipped with wifi to encourage persons to ditch their cars and use public transportation – the benefits could be two-fold, increased revenue and reduced traffic congestion.
Expanding the fleet could also mean being able to offer more charters, which is a great money earner. It could also mean more opportunities to offer the private sector bus wraps to advertise their businesses.