Editorial | Non-political debate on public transport
The Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) is a company of potential good but whose existence as a political football, and often a feeding trough, weakens its value to commuters and the national economy.
The latest trading of accusations between the Government, including its managers, on the one hand, and the Opposition on the other, as to who is responsible for the current state of its finances is a case in point.
The company is expected, according to projections presented to Parliament earlier this year, to lose J$7.3 billion, before a direct central government grant of J$2.5 billion, pushing the JUTC's accumulated deficit in the region of J$30 billion. Technically, the company is bankrupt. It is kept afloat by taxpayers in one of the few defensible areas of state involvement in the economy.
Good public transportation is critical to a modern economy. Firms can't operate efficiently if their workers can't get to their jobs regularly, or on time and in reasonable comfort. Which is something we haven't done well in Jamaica for several decades, despite the myriad bus models attempted since the collapse of the original state-owned company, the Jamaica Omnibus Service (JOS), more than 30 years ago. The problem is especially apparent in Greater Kingston, home to more than a quarter of Jamaica's population and a sizable chunk of its businesses.
Indeed, in the post-JOS period, an undisciplined coterie of privately owned, overcrowded buses, mostly loosely grouped into co-operatives, raced along their routes, endangering their passengers and other road users. It was partly to end this Middle Passage-type experience that commuters faced daily, and to bring a semblance of order to the system, that these operators were forced out and the JUTC formed in 1998.
If the JUTC has made a difference to those commuters who use it - it transported 58.76 million passengers in 2016-17 and plans to increase that by eight per cent in the current fiscal year - that, as the figures show, has come at a significant cost to taxpayers.
Yet its presence hasn't solved the city's transport problems. Many undisciplined operators of minibuses and route taxis, as well as unlicensed 'robots', still jostle on the streets, while an increasing number of people, with little confidence in the public system, seek private solutions: personal transportation.
The upshot: clogged thoroughfares, slow-moving traffic and an outflow of foreign exchange to purchase the vehicles and the fuel that powers them. Transportation consumed approximately a third of the more than 19 million barrels of imported petroleum used in Jamaica in 2016.
Need for rationalisation
Obviously, there is need to rationalise the public transport system. The JUTC, given the huge taxpayer investment in its rolling stock and the subsidies afforded to it, is part of this calculation. Unfortunately, the country has been unable to have a rational conversation about the JUTC and public transportation, more generally. Any discourse is constrained within political timelines.
Last week, the JUTC's managing director, Paul Abrahams, reported that the company was overstaffed and would cut around 500 workers, who had been mostly employed after his previous period in the job, up to 2012. Mr Abrahams was re-engaged at the JUTC more than a year ago, following a change of government.
Mike Henry, the current transportation minister, suggests that the problems at the JUTC were exacerbated during the previous administration, with the company being led by a former government minister, Colin Campbell, who won surprising plaudits for his perceived drive for efficiency and against corruption.
The tit for tat is tiring. Get down to hard-nosed analysis and serious fixes for public transportation.