“Around and around we go, where we stop nobody knows.” This rhyming idiom readily comes to mind when we repeatedly hear talk of “privatisation” because the State can no longer foot the close to $200 million bills annually to provide public transport.
For decades, minister after minister, administration after administration have used the hallowed halls of the House of Assembly to lament and pontificate about the hefty load that the Government continues to carry.
This week’s Annual Estimates Debate 2021-2022 was no different. With only months into his new portfolio Minister of Transport, Works and Water Resources, Ian Gooding-Edghill joined the chorus on the floor of Parliament. His ministry, incidentally, is to be allotted $110,164, 376 for the financial year starting April 1.
Gooding-Edghill said: “The Government of Barbados continues to carry a substantial investment in public transport; the investment in electric vehicles plus the ongoing annual subsidy. Now the Government cannot continue to carry such a load . . .”
He then swiftly assured that plans to tackle the haemorrhage at the Transport Board would not affect jobs.
“The plan that we envisage for public transport will not realise or see any persons being displaced in terms of unemployment. It will be a wholesome plan, but at the end of the day, the plan will result in the Government being freed up from carrying the substantial load that they currently carry.”
And therein lies the problem.
Any decision made on the future of the Transport Board may have an initial adverse effect. Continuing to foot the bill will hurt the Treasury and by extension taxpayers. A move to privatise could affect jobs. So instead of opting to take the road less travelled, those in authority at the Transport Board often talk but never get the vehicle started. However, it is clear that the decision has to be made. Make it and simply stick to it. The years of talk and talk and talk on this topic is now amounting to verbal diarrhoea.
Gooding-Edghill was responding to a query from Opposition Leader Joseph Atherley who spoke straight and decisively on the matter.
“Dissuade me from the view that we need to see the State remove itself from providing public transport on a commercial basis, leaving that to private operators with the State providing a serious and significant regulatory function, in addition to the provision of the social service element of public transport,” Atherley suggested.
And therein lies another problem.
While there is much merit in the Opposition Leader’s submission, it always seems easier to talk tough while on the other side. For some strange reason when the time comes for decision-making and action, nothing happens.
In 2018, while speaking at a Town Hall meeting Economic Advisor to Government Dr Kevin Greenidge said the restructuring of the operations of the central government and state-owned entities (SOE) should result in significant savings for Government.
Dr Greenidge explained then, that so far three SOEs had being considered for privatisation – the Barbados Water Authority (BWA), the Sanitation Service Authority (SSA) and the Transport Board. He said that the entities would not be “outrightly privatised” but rather have some of their services owned and managed by private individuals and companies.
“For example, if the workers at the Transport Board were allowed to, through some mechanism, to own the buses, that would significantly reduce the costs to Government and create an entrepreneurial level of workers that will certainly drive economic growth,” he said.
Sadly, however, not much has happened. Not even the concept of Transport Board workers being empowered as entrepreneurs has been brought into the real world.
Government did implement the Transport Augmentation Programme [TAP] which Minister Gooding-Edghill cited during the Estimates as a good example of a public-private partnership initiative.
“The Government of Barbados has commenced a programme looking and reviewing the whole concept of a Mass Transit Authority. The public transport sector in Barbados is worth in excess of $200 million and people do not stay in business if they are not making money,” Gooding-Edghill said.
But this transport partnership project was created under the previous administration. It was in 2014 that then Minister of Transport Michael Lashley introduced the Transport Authority Service Integration (TASI) Project which combined the services of the Board and operators of public service vehicles (PSVs) on some routes.
So both administrations are guilty of going only so far and no further.
More important to commuters than talk of privatisation, a TASI or TAP programme, is a fully functioning and efficient transport service. Hard-working Bajans want to know that there is a reliable transport system in place to get them to work on time.
The elderly want to get to their appointments at the clinics on time and not have to leave home three hours ahead of time. Working-class citizens want to get home in the quickest possible time after a long, hard day at work. They don’t want to stand by a bus stop or in a bus terminal for long hours. That only adds to an already tiring day.
The person who lives in Connell Town, St Lucy, Boscobel, St Peter, Shorey Village, St Andrew, Colleton, St John or Fortesque, St Philip should not be punished with poor service because of the distance of the district in which they chose to reside.
We have had enough of “a lotta long talk” as it relates to the transport sector. For all the talk and pontificating commuters continue to suffer at the hands of an inefficiently-run system. So to those in authority, and using the words of Rihanna: “Shut up and drive!”