Driving rural commuters over a cliff
Daryl Vaz, GUEST COLUMNIST
I cannot help but notice that there has not been much public discussion on high transport costs facing rural Jamaica parents/commuters and the recent JUTC fare increases. These rural commuters would stage a celebratory party if they were ever advised that their children could pay $30 for a ride on a bus to school.
In rural Jamaica, including my constituency of West Portland, children, adults, the elderly and the disabled are required to pay much more than their counterparts in the Kingston Metropolitan Transport Region (KMTR) in far less comfort than that of the urban buses.
For example, from Port Antonio to Manchioneal, a distance of 23 miles, the fare is $230 for adults and $100 for children, and there is no discounted fare for the elderly and the disabled. Similarly, from Port Antonio to Buff Bay, 18 miles, the fare is $150 for adults and $70 for students; while from Port Antonio to Long Bay, approximately 16 miles, it is $200 for adults and $90 for children. In the extreme, the fare from Mill Bank to Port Antonio is $250 for adults and $120 for children. This is approximately 16 miles on roads that are in a deplorable state.
The situation outlined shows that a parent in Portland, assuming that one bus or taxi will take the child to school, will pay a minimum of $200 per day to get a child to and from school, or as much as $240 each day. This has regrettably forced some parents to either withdraw all children or pick the brightest of the lot and invest all in that child. That is the REALITY, especially so in rural Jamaica, which is burdened by fares that may be regarded as exorbitant when compared to that which0 obtains in the Corporate Area!
In the Corporate Area, in the worst-case scenario, most children are required to take two buses to get to and from school. In such cases, Corporate Area parents are called upon to pay $120. Discussion concerning this disparity has largely been missing.
It should be noted that Port Antonio is home to two of the top secondary schools in the parish, Titchfield High and Port Antonio High, and understandably, parents place a premium on getting their children into these institutions. For the most part, children have to wake at 3 a.m. in order to get to school on time and do not return home until between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., depending on after-school activities.
It appears that we are being short-sighted in thinking that the financial woes facing the state-owned bus company, JUTC, is the only major problem. We should be mindful that the taxes, including contributions from the people of Portland and other rural parishes, are also used to subsidise the operations of the JUTC. Rural Jamaica does not benefit from that contribution but pays higher fares in all categories for a service that may be regarded as way inferior to that which obtains in the Corporate Area. Donkey say world nuh level!.
Erstwhile transport minister in the former JLP administration, Mike Henry, planned for, and had intended on, implementing a rural transport plan that would also service schoolchildren. (This was also mooted by Minister Ronnie Thwaites on the heels of the two horrific deadly accidents of buses transporting schoolchildren in rural Jamaica in recent times.) At that time, Henry argued that a rural bus system would have been linked to a broader plan to establish a "multimodal transport system" across the island. Henry had planned to roll out the first phase of the "rural-urban transport system" in Clarendon, followed by Manchester, St Elizabeth and St Ann.
"We were to start in May Pen then eventually move on to Christiana, Santa Cruz and Ocho Rios," said Henry. He revealed that the plan was to establish a temporary depot in May Pen right across from the Works Agency where the Ministry of Transport has land so that the buses didn't have to travel all the way back to Kingston.
"It wasn't something that was just plucked out of the air. It was done with careful consideration. I remember the long deliberations in Cabinet. We did a full survey of the social conditions in the rural areas and realised that you have Montego Bay Metro, which really covers four parishes, and the JUTC, which is being subsidised by all of the country to only service the privileged that live in Kingston and Andrew, but you have no transport system in the centre of the island," Henry had argued.
Now I am heartened to hear Transport Minister Dr Omar Davies saying that he is going to turn his attention to the rural Jamaica transport woes having now dealt with the elephant in the room, JUTC, and I have full confidence that Minister Davies will move with urgency and consult 'multimodal Mike' and whoever else has ideas.
It is full time we uplift rural Jamaica and alleviate long-standing issues regarding its transportation sector. The people in rural Jamaica have been hurting with the high transport cost and the overall cost of living. I see it and live it with them daily, and they have been understanding and tolerant while focus has been largely placed on improving the sector in the Corporate Area.
The fact is that we have not yet turned the corner and will not do for some time. The dollar continues to slide and minimal growth is projected. I, therefore, suggest that we all hold hands on the long, hard road ahead for our beloved country and people.
Daryl Vaz is MP of West Portland. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.