Talk sensibly about taxi, bus fares
WE HOPE that there won’t be a strike by buses and taxis next week, as has been threatened by some operators seeking higher fares. That would be very disruptive at a time when the economy is just emerging from a prolonged shutdown against COVID-19 infections.
However, in the name of fairness, the transport minister, Robert Montague, needs to do more to prevent a stoppage than his facile cross between attempting to shame and moral suasion. People’s intelligence and the facts of the situation demand something far more serious.
To be clear, this newspaper isn’t enamoured with the undisciplined bus and taxi drivers who operate in the capital and other major urban centres. They drive recklessly, in contravention of common sense and traffic laws, endangering other road users, their passengers and themselves. Part of the explanation for this behaviour is that private transport operators are always in a race – to pack one more passenger into the vehicle, to beat the competitor to the next bus stop, and to have first dibs at the next fare. Which, in part, is cause and effect of the threatened strike.
There is a surfeit of route taxis – legal and otherwise – in Jamaica and the market hasn’t as yet figured out a way to bring itself into orderly equilibrium. Public transportation, after all, is among the easiest of businesses to get into by anyone who is without a job. The economics of the business is precarious, hence the hustling.
FOREFRONT OF THE CURRENT AGITATION
Indeed, as Egerton Newman, the head of the Transport Operators Development Sustainable Services (TODSS), the organisation at the forefront of the current agitation, observed, no other sector in the Jamaican economy has had the cost of its service officially frozen for so long. According to the website of the Transport Authority, the sector’s regulatory agency, the last time route taxis were allowed a fare increase was in August 2013. Rates were hiked by 25 per cent to a base fare of J$82.50 and an additional J$4.50 per kilometre. That was nearly seven years ago. It is this freeze, in part, that caused the rate of inflation for transportation to track behind the overall rate of Jamaica’s consumer price index over the past six years.
It is against this backdrop that the TODSS now wants a doubling of fares, in favour of which Mr Newman has been engaging in some muscleflexing. He has hinted at the possibility of a strike.
Minister Montague’s response is to say that such an action would be “selfish … [and] irresponsible” at a time when schools have reopened and “poor people’s children are preparing for exams”.
He added: “Most bus and taxi operators have experienced poverty and know the value of education.”
This, clearly, is a not a sensible or rational economic rejoinder to a serious matter. With the economy forced into a recession, and thousands of people furloughed or forced to accept wage cuts, many commuters may not be able, at this time, to afford the fare hikes at the level demanded. Maybe this time prevailing conditions will shake out the market. But for those left in what is a regulated industry, the situation demands thoughtful engagement by policymakers like Mr Montague. Fairness has to be at the centre of these discussions.
In this respect, Mr Montague ought to remind himself of the context of the existence of the Government’s bus service, the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC). Despite being earmarked for J$5.3 billion in subsidies this fiscal year, the JUTC will have a deficit of J$5.8 billion. The company’s operating loss is projected at J$11.4 billion, from J$4.4 billion in 2019 when it presumably recorded a surplus of J$2.2 billion. That surplus, however, was after taxpayers gave the company J$6.6 billion in subsidies.
Good and affordable public transportation is crucial to the efficient operation of modern economies. That sometimes requires taxpayers to help foot the bill, which is what happens in the case of the JUTC, but not in the ramshackle private system.