These days, it would appear, it is hardly possible to get into any kind of discussion with friend, family or foe without it heading in the direction of the island’s current fiscal challenges and what could or should be done.
Interestingly, it would also appear, that increasingly Barbadians in their own little ways are stirring their minds to arrive at how they can ease their own strain, while at the same time offering their thoughts at what authorities can do at the national level in terms of stretching the public purse.
And what is becoming increasingly clear to John Public — we can’t speak for the national thinkers and decision makers in this instance — is that in these extra-ordinary times, traditional thinking is not of much value. We also get the impression, even while relying dangerously on anecdotal evidence, that Barbadians have come to accept that some radical decisions still have to be made. We are not talking about sending home public servants or cutting university support.
The point we wish to make is that decisions, such as the two mentioned in the previous sentence, do not fundamentally change the problem we have. Applying pressure above a wound will cut the flow, but it will not seal the artery. That is the fundamental difference between attacking the symptom and addressing the underlying problem.
What Barbados needs are some fundamental structural adjustments to some key areas in which we conduct public business — adjustments that will bring lasting and sustainable positive change to what we do.
Let’s take public transport – the Government side of it, that is. The Transport Board has a fleet of almost 300 buses, all powered by diesel fuel, and we suspect that the youngest of them must be at least a decade old — retrofitting and major overhauling notwithstanding. However you cut it, the board’s fleet must be anything but fuel efficient at this stage, and we suspect that the level of routine maintenance in an organisation that is always cash-strapped has also to be below par.
So what happens when the allocation of funds to such a state corporation gets cut by several million dollars?
So, is this the time to change an entire fleet when you have no money? We suspect that it is in the board’s best interest at this time to identify a partner that would allow it to replace its entire fleet with vehicles that run on natural gas or some other green fuel.
We say that, recognising that we do not have the technical expertise to determine if these buses would be appropriate for all routes. For example, we don’t know if an engine running on compressed natural gas will put out enough horse power to climb Horse Hill in St. Joseph or Cleland Hill in St. Peter, so we accept that conventional engines may have to remain in some instances.
Based on the American experience, the experts note that in cases where CNG replaced diesel, there was an immediate 25 per cent drop in fuel consumption costs. And we are talking about bus systems that traditionally pay a lot more attention to maintenance and keeping drivers to sensible speeds while servicing their routes. Certainly we can think of no United States or United Kingdom city where a bus will zip past you at 90 kilometres per hour. That scenario alone suggests Barbados could realise savings well beyond 25 per cent.
The challenge in making such radical changes, however, comes from what appears to be a natural tendency to see less spending up front as the answer to fiscal problems, but accepting that the medium-to long-term benefits could be overwhelming.
In how many other areas can such an approach be replicated? We don’t know that the ambulance service is any big draw on Government’s finances, but does it have of necessity to be a public sector-delivered service? Can greater efficiency be realised by a different approach?