Thu | Aug 17, 2017

The crass politics of road repairs

Published:Wednesday | December 16, 2015 | 12:00 AM

The statement was made in 2002, an election year 13 years ago, but even now we can make claims to knowledge of the two most salient features of the message. The amateur poetry employed and the sheer emptiness of the promise.

It was Bobby Pickersgill, then minister of transport and works, who said, "Jamaica will be pothole free by 2003."

In August 2009, Audley, then finance minister in a JLP administration, made the announcement that the amount allocated (20 per cent) from the special consumption tax (SCT) on fuel for road repairs would not be diverted to any other area of governance.

Just a year ago, 2014, the CEO of the Road Maintenance Fund (RMF), Clement Watson, was reporting to a parliamentary committee that the $1.3b from that same 20 per cent of SCT had been diverted to the Consolidated Fund for budgetary support earlier in the year. The RMF was only left with $1.2b, which represented the take from motor vehicle licensing fees.

Place this alongside the National Works Agency (NWA)'s estimate of $4b that is needed and the crisis is brought into sharper focus. The NWA's stated duties limit it to main-road maintenance, but over the last four years, I have observed some overlap in it extending its duties to non-main-road repairs.

Readers may not care too much about the cross-hatching of accounting between the local government ministry and the NWA, the difficulty in avoiding double-charging and the obvious exposure to corruption. What is of importance to them is that the road repairs election catch has its positives.

Once non-highway main roads and parochial roadways are being repaired, one of two things is obvious. A special overseas visitor is expected soon or an election is on the horizon. We know that the VIPs have done their arrivals and departures and, at this time, no more are planned or yet conjured up for raw political reasons.

 

Spare change

 

Jamaica has no good track record in keeping taxes allocated for specific purposes doing the very thing which brought about their imposition. The education tax has long become part of the Consolidated Fund as Jamaica's politics has dictated its economics, with even the spare change in the cookie jar always used up.

Under an IMF regime, it matters not too much to its directors how we juggle our books to meet their repayment schedule. Just as long as it is fiscally sustainable. If monies to fix roads are diverted to meet allocations in other areas, the results are all too painfully obvious - potholes always on the increase as drivers suffer innumerable hazards on our non-highway roads.

It was PNP icon P.J. Patterson who said, "The road to development is the development of roads." I agree with that statement, but there are other factors that must also exist aside from just building a new road.

About 20 years ago, I travelled from Robin's Bay to a sleepy little district called Nutfield and then on to Islington. The road from the Caribbean paradise of Robin's Bay was fit only for a herd of goats. Commerce in Nutfield was all but dead. If that road was rebuilt, it would soon be discovered by city drivers, who would use it to travel to the wonderful small town of Islington. Increased commerce would be the result.

One businessman who spoke to me last week said, "The last administration was trying its best to keep the taxes allocated for road maintenance in the road programme, and I believe that this PNP administration must get back to making road repairs a priority."

According to him, there is funding for the adequate repairs of our roads, and absent of a hurricane or excess flooding, we ought to be able to maintain a decent road structure in this country. Just recently, PNP Councillor Garth Walker of the Brandon Hill division suggested that the JPS and cable companies should be seen as sources.

We assume he means that they ought to be taxed and the revenues dedicated to topping up the Equalisation Fund, which is funded by 10 per cent of property taxes.

Here is the problem. I have no beef with seeing JPS and the cable companies as easy targets to tax because they are the obvious ones. The roadways in this country provide them with a main part of their physical infrastructure, which they didn't have to build out. So, maybe a tax on them and dedicated to repairing our roads is not that bad an idea.

The real problem is that this, or any other administration, may simply switch in mid-stream and divert the funds again. Until the next election.

- Mark Wignall is a political analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and observemark@gmail.com.