Talk sen­si­bly about taxi, bus fares

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION -

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.

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