The head of one of this island’s private transport associations is suggesting a major overhaul of the state-run Transport Board that will not require any Government divestment of ownership, but a significant change in how it presently operates.
Without making any mention of the dreaded word “privatization”, President of the Association of Public Transport Operators (APTO), Morris Lee, has suggested to Barbados TODAY that by going green could actually wipe out $25 – $30 million a year from the public transport bill and pave the way for the Transport Board to turn a profit.
The way he sees this happening is through conversion of the over 200 state-owned buses that are now said to be lying idle into electric vehicles, and the main Fairchild Street bus terminal into a solar energy plant to both power the vehicles and feed back into the grid.
“The Transport Board, out of a fleet of 320 buses, they have been able to put out only 80 on a daily basis. That means they have in excess of over 230 buses sitting down at either the Mangrove [St Philip] or Weymouth [St Michael] depots doing nothing,” Lee said.
“I would respectfully propose that you take one of these units, and I can tell [Government] where they can send it overseas to have it retrofitted from fossil fuel to electric power, document what changes were made [and] when the bus comes back to Barbados, you can convert at least 150 of those buses [that are sitting idle] to battery operation, get them to work during the day and use the fossil fuel buses at night,” the APTO head said.
His comments come of the heels of a recent controversial suggestion made by economist and Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) candidate for Christ Church East Central Ryan Straughn that the loss-making Transport Board be sold, with the economy currently at its lowest ebb and that entity proving to be a burden to the state.
“I ask Barbados when will we recognize that the Government of Barbados does not have to own a bus to deliver subsidized fares for any of its citizens?” the former Central Bank economist asked while delivering the Eighth Tom Adams Memorial Lecture more than a week ago.
Straughn also suggested that in a 21st century Barbados, Government’s role should be that of a strong regulator and not owner of public transportation.
However, while staying clear of the privatization debate, Lee said he too was generally concerned that though Barbados had progressed, the transport sector has languished as much as 30 years behind.
Therefore, he said he expects that the proposed overhaul would eliminate the double shift that Transport Board buses currently work, “which means that they would work less and they would last longer”.
Lee also made a case for private public service vehicle operators to be granted duty free concessions on the purchase of new vehicles and parts.
“New buses use less fuel and less parts and the figures that I have calculated is that the country will save at least 25 to 30 million dollars a year, by giving the operators duty free concessions.
“You would save another 20 to 25 million dollars a year, by generating electricity from the stations I mentioned earlier. If you multiply that over a ten-year period, that is 400 million dollars,” he said.
“If the country, by making a shift in its thinking, turns around the country by saving 40 million dollars foreign exchange when the year comes, are you going to tell me that our foreign reserves would not be in a much healthier position in ten years’ time?”
Lee also poured cold water on the recent discussion on a possible hike in bus fares saying, “it is not just a matter of picking up passengers and quarreling about two dollars. My thinking now is above that nonsense. I am saying that we have to think different, we have to think big and we have to shift the way in which we look at transport,” he told Barbados TODAY after Straughn’s recent statements generated much controversy with his own Opposition BLP seemingly throwing him under the bus and seeking to distance itself from his recommendation that the Transport Board be divested.
In the words of both the Member of Parliament for the City Jeffrey Bostic and BLP General Secretary Dr Jerome Walcott, the rookie politician did not speak for the Opposition party on the issue.
However, the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) has promised Barbadians that it will not privatize the transport system if it were to be elected for a third straight term next election.
Still APTO is concerned that the issue of public transport is being used as a political football.
And with elections due here by the middle of next year, Lee is making it clear that the sector will not allow itself to be used as a mere pawn.
In fact, Lee told Barbados TODAY this week that his organization was in the process of putting together a “PSV Manifesto for Transport” with a view to ensuring that their concerns are adequately addressed.
“The political parties need to have access to the foresight and the vision of the operators who deal with transport every day,” he said, while suggesting that in the past the industry had been “hurt” by “decisions made in an office by people who do not know a lot about transport.
On the other hand, he said there were people “out on the road that know the sector, even though they do not have the university qualifications.
“They can still contribute to the discussion on its future without seeking to outdo one another for cheap political gain,” he suggested.