Outside the bus

Yesterday evening the Barbados Government Information Service dispatched via email to the various media houses its regular package of Government news, including the announcement of a significant item on the Order Paper for today’s sitting of the House of Assembly.

It was the final item in the package, but in many ways it was the one that held more attention for us than all the other “news” items combined. It said in part: “Minister [of Transport and Works John] Boyce will seek to have approved a resolution to approve the guarantee by Government of the principal and interest on this amount necessary for the repayment of $35,000,000 to be raised by the Transport Board through the issue and sale of fixed rate bonds.

“The bonds are arranged by the Barbados National Bank and Finance Trust Corporation on the terms and conditions set out in the schedule to the resolution for the purpose of the repayment of a short-term bridging facility advanced by the Barbados National Bank Inc. to the Transport Board.”

“Members will also debate whether Government should approve the guarantee of a loan totalling $10,900,000 and interest on that sum that is to be ‘borrowed by the Transport Board from the Barbados National Bank Inc’. The monies are for financing an operating short-fall, paying creditors and purchasing capital equipment.”

We suspect that Barbadians who wanted a clear picture of exactly why the Transport Board required this huge sum would have had to listen to the debate, but one can’t help but conclude that the time has long passed since we should have had a comprehensive national debate on the future of public transportation here.

That the Transport Board provides an essential service there is no doubt. That it is an expensive service, there is no doubt. That it could be far more efficient, there is also no doubt. But can the board be blamed for its shortcomings? In the main no! The agency has been saddled for decades with Government policies that are costly, and some of which at times are not the most fiscally prudent.

Unfortunately, it appears we have long passed the days of plenty and nationally we ought to be keeping a closer watch on our “coppers”. How long can we afford to operate these huge buses all day long, during peak and off periods, without proper consideration of alternatives – and not just alternative that relate to machinery now in the board’s rolling stock.

At what point will those responsible discuss and mandate the operation of buses that utilise alternative fuels like compressed natural gas? For Heaven’s sake, other jurisdictions have been using natural gas in pubic transportation for two decades now. There is no novelty.

When will we stop talking and institute serious rules for the operation of private sector players in public transport; and then integrate them sensibly into the national network? And no, allowing them park to in the same terminal does not amount to integration!

We need to take a modern, sensible approach to the operation of public transport in Barbados, including if it is necessary to maintain the Transport Board in the form we have known it for the past half century. Yes, Barbados has been well served by providing free or subsidised services for those who need them, by having the Transport Board take responsibility for the movement of our school children, etc, but does the Transport Board have to be a state entity for the state to effectively deliver these services?

Is the state the best institution to drive innovation in public transport? Would a private player interested in delivering optimum service in the most cost effective manner in 2012 be operating a *****cc diesel-guzzling engine all day long between Oistins and Speightstown? We suspect not: not given the constantly escalating price of fuel.

Unfortunately, in today’s arrangement we suspect that such decisions don’t originate with the board’s management. As important a service as it provides, Barbados just can’t afford to keep pouring millions into this Roebuck Street based operation the way we have always done. We need to start thinking outside the bus!


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