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#BTEditorial – On the road to a sound transport system

“When will we recognise that Government does not have to own a bus to deliver subsidised fares for any of its citizens? Furthermore, I suggest that Government’s role in the 21st century should be as a strong regulator which would provide a much higher value of money for you the taxpayer than if we continue to maintain the current system as is.” – Ryan Straughn, economist.

Two years ago before becoming Minister in the Ministry of Finance, Ryan Straughn challenged this country to rethink its public transport system.

As he delivered the Eighth Tom Adams Memorial Lecture, his statements provoked a firestorm in some quarters.

But the failure of authorities to change the status quo and the woes of the Transport Board could well prove to vindicate Straughn’s vision.

For decades, public transport has been at the crossroads.  But now it has reached a point of no return.

The cash-strapped Transport Board does not have the financial resources to stay afloat, far less the required buses to run efficient services. The complaints of commuters who have been subjected to extremely long waits to travel to school and work have been loud and long.

Government has no choice but to tackle this vexing issue given the widespread need for an essential service.

Well thought-out measures to modernise our public transport system to the benefit of commuters are urgent but must be formulated with the widest possible consultation.

Straughn had proposed that with more than 100,000 private vehicles in Barbados, Government should quietly make its exit from the business of operating buses to that of a regulator.

He said then: “Let us establish a revenue-sharing model backed by a robust digital payments solution across the public transportation sector which will systematically remove the disorder that currently exists on our nation’s roads.

“Let us all set a simple target of cutting transit times during term time by 50 per cent by 2020 by improving our traffic management system, this can be done by establishing two lanes of one-way traffic on specially designated roads in and out of the city during peak times on weekdays.

“Let us deploy drones today, not in 20 years, so that real-time information is received by both commuters and the authorities who can then properly evaluate whether the objectives are being achieved.

“Let’s give commuters on public transportation real-time information on when the next bus will arrive at their destination. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make this happen, all that is needed is sheer will.”

Yesterday, the chairman of the Transport Board, Gregory Nicholls, signalled there was will to tackle the problem, no doubt bolstered by the perilous state of the board’s finances.

While we anxiously await the full details of a “new-look Transport Board”, Nicholls no doubt piqued interest when he said: “We’re talking about a system where the Transport Board is not the owner of 300 plus buses, but more the regulator of a route network which will have much more private sector participation in the delivery of those services. That is the Government’s plan going forward ”

He further pointed out that new profit-making endeavour would ease the burden on the Government’s coffers while affording Transport Board bus drivers at least a 20 per cent equity.

The devil is in the details, no doubt, though one hardly can find fault with a plan that would empower drivers to own a stake in the very service they provide daily.  If a solid, credible plan could be developed this would result in investment, employment and other knock-on effects for the economy.

A definite must is the role current Public Service Vehicle operators will play. With all their shortcomings, these players still provide a much-needed service and any new plan must include their participation on a level playing field.

Still, a scheme of this kind cannot function without a sound regulatory framework. The Transport Board as a regulator as proposed must lay down stringent standards, identify sound areas of operations, fix prices, and enable fair participation by entrepreneurs.

Clearly, now is the time to hit the road on developing a transport system that is safe, efficient and viable, one that will entice Barbadians to get on board.

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