A GUY's VIEW: Public transportation solutions
Sat, 03/19/2016 - 7:15pm
R E Guyson Mayers
“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.”
– Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Last week our Parliament discussed the Estimates of expenditure for the coming year. Between the usual partisan banter, some important issues were discussed. The snatches I was able to catch confirm that when we think as Barbadians, rather than as party faithfuls, we can make headway in finding our way in the world.
Not least among the important areas of discussion was the search for solutions to our public transportation problems. The discussion on this issue was interesting because it attracted useful comment which was not limited to criticism.
There seemed to be consensus that the public transportation system was broken and was in need of urgent repair. The principal piece of supporting evidence was the large subsidy which Government has to pay out each year in order to keep the Transport Board running.
Paying large subsidies to loss-making entities is a temporary exercise for a revenue-strapped Government, for it cannot continue indefinitely. Truth be told, a solution is long overdue.
The “obvious” solutions which might come to mind may not be so obvious for a Government which has made a commitment to provide maximum support to the segment of the population which is least equipped to take care of itself. Many factors must be taken into account.
The cost of a bus ride is not reflected in the fare which passengers pay. A private businessperson would easily say, carry up the fare to cover the cost and return a profit. But that is not so easy for a Government to do. Socialist Governments, like all of our Governments since independence, think long and hard about the impact of their decisions on all sections of the population, especially the poor and vulnerable.
The breakeven point for the Transport Board is significantly higher than would obtain for persons involved in the private transportation sector. There may be several reasons for this. One such reason is the skewed structure of the route system. The transport authorities have flooded all the lucrative routes with privately owned vehicles, and have retained all the long routes that are unlikely to be money earners for the Transport Board. The Transport Board is not a loss making entity by accident.
Separate, although linked, is the cost of maintenance, including the payment of wages and salaries. The wear and tear which will be suffered by a vehicle which has to travel from Bridgetown to the farthest reaches of St. Lucy and St. Philip will be very different from what will be the case for one travelling from Bridgetown to Grazettes.
Add to this the consideration that the Transport Board runs buses from five o’clock in the morning till twelve midnight, and every hour in between. The privately owned vehicles run only at peak hours. As a consequence, a large segment of the travelling public would not be able to travel were it not for the service provided by the Transport Board.
The Transport Board wage structure is also different from what obtains in the private sector. I am told that private owners are guaranteed a certain sum of money daily. The Transport Board is guaranteed nothing, and continues to make losses to the tune of millions of dollars.
The Minister of Transport has touched on an interesting proposal: that of marrying the public and private operators in a common approach to public transportation. His approach has been cautious, however, and this will not provide an early solution to the problem at hand.
The Minister’s slow, consultative approach evidences his recognition that there may be no easy fix to this problem. It was smart to bring the public into his efforts and inviting comment from the users of the public transportation service may yet throw up an idea that has not yet been thought of. For this to happen, however, the decision makers must pay due respect to the views of every person, even those regarded as poor or ignorant or dressed in a different colour.
The Minister of Finance floated the idea of breaking up the routes. As I understood it, he was of the view that it would make sense to break up the longest routes, turning one long route into two shorter routes. This may have cost implications for those who live in the distant reaches of the country, but one cannot deny that these persons receive a greater benefit from the transportation service from those who do not travel as far. The argument against the Minister on this point on the basis of equality, or equity, falls flat on closer examination.
One possible approach may be to implement the breaking of the routes, charge the usual fare, or whatever new fare is agreed on, and a smaller fare for those journeying on beyond the mid-way hub. For example, a Connell Town passenger may pay the $2.00 fare to the hub in Holetown or Speightstown, but then pay $1.50 for the rest of the journey from the hub to Connell Town.
It is really a non-argument that a person stopping at Speightstown, or shorter, would only have to pay $2.00. Those persons would not be using the service for the length of the journey of their Connell Town counterparts. Those persons travelling beyond the hub use more fuel, more labour provided by a driver, more wear and tear, more everything. When this issue is looked at honestly, it is unfair for persons who are travelling twenty miles to expect to pay the same price as those who are travelling five miles. It could legitimately be argued that the persons who travel five miles and have to pay the same as those who travel twenty miles are being discriminated against. They are being treated unfairly.