Of cost and efficiency
Based on the statements of its various representatives, and the contents of the recent Financial Statement and Budgetary Proposals, we can reasonably conclude that a privatisation programme is not on Government’s agenda at this time.
This means any divestment of the Transport Board, as previously recommended by some in and out of corporate Barbados, is unlikely.
That said, it is clear that as this important statutory organisation celebrates its 58th anniversary this week the popular clich√ “business as usual” cannot apply.
The Transport Board has long depended on government funding for its survival, the logical argument being that in many ways it provides a social service to those Barbadians who cannot afford their own transportation, and that it does so at relatively minimal cost to its users.
There are some who even see it as an extension of the longstanding social safety net, inclusive of welfare, free health care, and education. This group includes senior citizens and school children who ride free.
It is a reality which has been emphasised repeatedly by local administrations regardless of which side of the political fence they reside.
But in recent times, faced with a growing population and hence growing demand for such entitlements, the cost of providing them has become a prime concern.
That is what entities like the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Sanitation Service Authority and the Transport Board are confronting now.
With seemingly no end in sight to the economic difficulties Barbados has endured for the past five years, and in light of Government’s own shallow pockets, the Transport Board will see its direct access to funds from the state cut by $15 million.
Other budgetary constraints not yet fully spelt out are also likely to negatively impact on its operations.
As expected, the immediate response of the government official responsible for the Board, Minister of Transport and Works Michael Lashley was to seek to allay the fears of Barbadian commuters that they would not have to pay fares higher than the current $2.
He also mentioned other plans to improve efficiencies at the company, including purchasing or leasing new buses, improving terminals, taking another look at bus routes etcetera.
Lashley and Cabinet colleague Minister of Housing, Lands and Rural Development Denis Kellman went so far as to link the island’s bad roads, and their need for major repair, to the burdensome maintenance bill with which the organisation has to contend.
Only a fool would disagree that all of these issues and more are not relevant and important to ensuring the viability and financial health of the Transport Board.
But in its haste to ensure the little old lady from Belleplaine, and thousands more who utilise public transportation are not disadvantaged daily, Government needs to look more closely at fashioning a real public transportation system.
And what is the role of the Barbados Transport Authority in all of this?
Based on the provisions of the Transport Authority Act of 2007 it is clear that this statutory body has an important and influential mandate, which judged purely on the public mouthings, or lack thereof, of its administrators, most Barbadians are not aware of.
This includes “to undertake planning for the public transport system”, “to monitor and regulate the public transport system”, “to issue, cancel, suspend licenses of drivers and conductors of public service vehicles”, “to issue, suspend or revoke permits in respect of public service vehicles”, and “to restrict the use of motor omnibuses, minibuses and route taxis to specified routes”.
For an organisation that is calling the shots in public transportation in Barbados, the Transport Authority appears to be operating too much on the fringes of the public transportation debate, which is largely centered around the Transport Board and private operators.
Based on its statutory muscle it is the organisation which should be leading the debate on this important issue, not the Transport Board, not the minister. If the hundreds of millions of dollars successive governments pumped into the Transport Board, including via direct funding from central government and loan guarantees, did not make a major difference in good time, surely it will be much worse off now in this period of fiscal consolidation.
Simply fixing roads, buying new buses, and renovating terminals is not the solution.