FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: Fix perennial problems
Government has a poor record where maintenance is concerned – whether it’s buildings, vehicles or equipment.
The areas where lack of maintenance is most obvious and has dire consequences are the ambulance service, police force, sanitation service and public transport. The fire service seems to be able to maintain its vehicles in reasonable order, although we do need more stations and vehicles to be able to respond more quickly.
What’s interesting, though not surprising, is that while Government has a graveyard of buses and sanitation vehicles “resting in peace” and sometimes “in pieces” at their respective headquarters, when these are auctioned from time to time, buyers seem to be able to put them back into working order.
As we’re well aware, continually renewing the fleets of these vehicles will not solve either the waste management problem or public transport. Where public transport is concerned, there was a big uproar when privatisation of the Transport Board was raised, but I and others feel that some measure of privatisation is necessary to prevent the haemorrhaging that has continued unabated for years at that entity.
While millions are continually lost by the Transport Board, the bus service is still less than acceptable. The Prime Minister is quoted in the Press as stating that “the Transport Board performs a social service, not rooted in the pursuit of profit-making, but rooted in the humanitarian pursuit of ensuring that people can get from one part of Barbados to another”.
Well, under the present system, the Board is definitely not profit-making but, judging from the numerous complaints heard daily, neither is it ensuring that people get from one part of Barbados to another. So something must be done which will cut the losses and ensure an efficient service.
It’s obvious that our traffic congestion is becoming almost unbearable and this certainly affects productivity. Furthermore, the 8 000 or so private vehicles that have been added in recent years have affected the profitability of the public transport system. But we have to ask ourselves, is this increase partially because the public transport system is so unreliable? It’s a vicious circle so a solution is urgently needed.
No one is saying it will be a simple task to come up with a cost-effective and reliable system, but a start has to be made somewhere, and Minister Michael Lashley must be congratulated on at least giving it some thought and attempting to do things differently.
Mr Morris Lee, head of the Association of Public Transport Operators, is reported as saying that with the 550 PSVs and the number of idle buses at the Board’s headquarters, they could work together to ensure the Board didn’t have to import a single new bus at this time.
That would be ideal under the circumstances, but as the minister noted, if the private sector is involved in public transportation, they have to comply with the statutory requirements of the Road Traffic Act. Since they appear a law unto themselves and are generally indisciplined, there would have to be stringent monitoring and policing put in place, including ensuring they cover their entire routes and don’t leave passengers stranded. Penalties for infringement would have to be severe like locking of wheels, heavy fines and ultimately loss of their permits.
It has been claimed that one of the reasons for the Transport Board’s losses is the fact that the Board has the less lucrative routes. My feeling is that if the buses were turned over to private people, those on the less lucrative routes could be subsidised to ensure that they make a fair profit.
It has also been said that the wholesale privatisation of the statutory body could negatively impact vulnerable groups, including pensioners and the poor, who might be at the mercy of private companies more interested in maximising profits.
Government could respond to this by compensating the private buses for transporting pensioners and schoolchildren. I’m sure the cost to Government for all these subsidies as well as the additional oversight, would be less than running the present bloated organisation which seems to be out of control.
What’s clear is that any new system requires proper discussion and planning, organisation and oversight as well as strict enforcement of the law and other rules and regulations which the Transport Authority may put in place. It’s worth a try!
• Dr Frances Chandler is a former Independent senator.