Wed | Apr 1, 2020

Editorial | Before JUTC buys electric buses

Published:Sunday | February 16, 2020 | 12:34 AM

Lots of people, like this newspaper, will be excited by the idea of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) adding electric buses to its fleet, as the Government has promised for the new fiscal year. Forty-five are to be acquired, Governor General Sir Patrick Allen disclosed in last week’s Throne Speech.

Novelty aside, Sir Patrick not only dangled the green attributes of electric vehicles, therefore their benefit to the environment, but raised the prospect of savings on fuel, which would be good for the finances of the company as well as the national economy. This optimism notwithstanding, the JUTC’s managers need to provide the company’s shareholders and taxpayers with further particulars about their plan, including the feasibility analysis upon which it rests. There is also much more to explain about the company.

The stated-owned bus company operates in the Kingston Metropolitan Region, which primarily means the Jamaica capital and the urban areas of the administratively adjoined parish of St Andrew, as well as the large municipalities of Portmore and Spanish Town in St Catherine, to the west. When the JUTC was formed more than two decades ago, the hope was that it would inspire order in a chaotic public transport system. Its success, in that respect, has been limited, even as taxpayers carried a heavy cost for the company’s operation.

The JUTC projects that it will close the fiscal year, March 31, with a surplus of almost J$2.3 billion, but that is after a government subvention of J$6.6 billion, or the equivalent to 83 per cent of its revenue and more than two-thirds of its operating costs. Over the year, it will have moved 41 million passengers, or around 23 per cent fewer than projected. Notably, the company’s “other income” of J$4 billion was 11 per cent more than what it earned in fares and from charters.

In the new financial year, although bolstered by a J$5.3-billion government grant to help meet its operating expenses, the JUTC projects to increase its passenger rides to 50 million, and expects to report a loss of J$5.8 billion. And, on the face of it, the expenditure on the electric buses won’t figure in that deficit. Their cost isn’t reflected in the company’s proposed capital spending.

Against the background of the company’s finances, where insolvency is held at bay by the Government’s capital contributions, the JUTC’s chief executive officer, Paul Abrahams, and the transport minister, Robert Montague, should offer taxpayers a good case for the purchase of electric buses at this time, or show how their acquisition is strategically enmeshed in larger national policy. And not just by saying so.

EXPECTED CHALLENGES

This newspaper supports action to reduce greenhouse emissions and to attack global warming, which is a case for the introduction of battery electric buses (BEBs). If they work.

It is estimated that fewer than 20 per cent of the world’s buses are electric, and upwards of 90 per cent are in China, although those numbers could begin to shift towards the end of the decade as zero-emission standards kick in in some countries, including the American state of California.

The problem for now is that while battery technology has improved over the last decade, the power source doesn’t offer the same fuel density as diesel, on which commuter buses generally run.

Further, most evaluations suggest that loaded electric buses may struggle on relatively hilly routes, in hot climates and in urban environments, where travel demand significant numbers of stops and starts, rather than longer highway drives.

If the JUTC is certain that it has resolved these issues and that it won’t import electric vehicles unsuitable for Jamaican conditions, then we welcome the BEBs.

Buying inappropriate buses is something the JUTC has done before.