Thu | Nov 14, 2019

Robert Montague | Strong reforms necessary in the transportation sector

Published:Sunday | October 20, 2019 | 1:25 AM

Let me commend The Gleaner Company for 185 years of outstanding service to the Jamaican people. The reputation and validity of The Gleaner remains high and well favoured in the hearts of the people and plays a very important role in the sphere of public opinion by facilitating views and opinions from all sectors of the society, some factual, others not as much.

Free speech and the expression of one’s opinion is a fundamental principle of our democracy; however, those of us who happen to have seats of influence and power in the society, such as The Gleaner, must take care in how this power and influence is used to malign and discredit others, especially in the face of readily available facts that speak contrary to the opinions we put forward. Using ‘alternative facts’ is the term I think most popularly used to describe this phenomenon.

I write in direct response to the opinion piece published in The Gleaner by Mr Andre Wright, the outgoing opinion editor of the Gleaner, on October 16, 2019.

Let me take in turn the points as listed by Mr Wright.

First of all, for extreme clarity, I do not own a vehicle, so his attempted use of literary devices, while commendable, may mislead many. I am provided with a government vehicle, which I use in the earnest execution of my duties to the people of Jamaica.

Secondly, the assertion that I, as then minister of national security, “bypassed a host of credible and creditable alternatives in procuring 200 pre-owned motor vehicles to supplement the fleet of the police force” is a false statement and puts into question all other claims Mr Wright has made in his ‘opinion’. The idea to purchase used cars supported by the rationale of equipping the police force with vehicles, specifically to enhance the mobility of the force in an environment of spiralling crime and a stringent IMF agreement, was a manifesto point campaigned on in 2016 by the now governing party, which, as minister, I sought to execute. We try as best as possible to uphold commitments as voted on by the majority of the people of Jamaica.

To this end, the Ministry of National Security, under my leadership, strictly followed all government procurement guidelines, including the recommendation of the National Contracts Commission (NCC), to use a sole contractor, despite the push-back from technocrats within the Ministry of National Security. This has been public knowledge, but it seems like Mr Wright does not pursue facts.

I must also reiterate that not one dollar of taxpayers’ money has been lost in the contractor failing to deliver the vehicles on time as per contract. As minister of national security, I ensured that there were sufficient contingencies in place in terms of performance-related bonds and mediation proceedings to ensure that the interest of the taxpayer was duly protected in the case of any eventuality.

Furthermore, it was announced to Parliament that the remaining vehicles are soon to be delivered following mediation proceedings. All of which was reported by The Gleaner.

ROUTE LIBERALISATION POLICY

The ‘opinion’ went on to further claim that the indiscipline being highlighted on the roads in the city of Kingston is as a result of increased road licences issued. Another blatant non-factual statement. While we have embarked on a Route Liberalisation Policy, the policy has been applied to everywhere else except the Kingston Metropolitan Region (KMTR). No routes have been opened up in the KMTR except specific JUTC subfranchise licences on routes that currently have no operators.

The liberalisation policy was not implemented in isolation but with the consultation of all major stakeholders in the transport industry. I am the only minister of transport on record to have had 21 consultations within my first 19 months in office. This I saw as necessary as the sector is in need of reform. my 16-point reform proposal (liberalisation of routes being one of points proposed) sought to do just that.

However, no reform occurs without appropriate dialogue with the major stakeholders in the sector I now lead as minister, thus, consult I did. I have gone even further than consulting, but I also am the first minister to name public passenger vehicle (PPV) operators and owners with sufficient experience in the sector to boards – the Transport Authority and Island Traffic Authority boards in particular.

This was done as I believe strongly that to credibly apply policy, we must have the input of critical stakeholders such as PPV owners and operators at the highest level.

The Route Liberalisation Policy was endorsed by the major players in the industry, including the Route Taxi Association of Jamaica (RTAJ), the National Council of Taxi Associations (NCOTA), and the Hackney Carriage Association, among others. We have now also begun to issue hackney carriage licences to persons outside of Kingston.

KINGSTON IS NOT JAMAICA

I am of the firm belief that Jamaicans in rural Jamaica, from Woodpark in St Mary to Mountainside in St Elizabeth, should have the same transportation rights and standards as those in Kingston. Why shouldn’t Miss Lovie from Woodpark have the option of calling a taxi and have the taxi pick her up at her gate as do Jamaicans who reside in Kingston?

My vision is to bring safe, reliable, convenient, and quality transportation to every nook and cranny of the island, not just Kingston, and we are working towards that. I want to see an end to the days where schoolchildren in rural Jamaica have to ‘lapup’ or women have to straddle their legs, one on the driver side and the other on the passenger side, to accommodate four in the front – all because of insufficient seats on routes. Kingston is not Jamaica, and policy must be appropriately tailored to ensure equity in how it is applied to the benefit of the people no matter where they happen to reside.

While I acknowledge the indiscipline on our roads, 325 families are without a father, brother, mother, sister, or uncle as a result of road fatalities, a number that brings much grief to even consider. we are doing our part to ensure that the behaviour on our roads is modified.

This is the reason we have established the WhatsApp line at 876-551-8196 and have also designed and made available the Drive Safe app, available in the Google play and app store, where citizens are encouraged to submit videos and images of careless and reckless driving to the Transport Authority. We have also, as part of an increased enforcement drive, hired 50 new inspectors at the Transport Authority who are currently being deployed across the island.

So far, the support from the public has been tremendous, and many licences have been revoked and persons prosecuted. The famous case of the ‘STAINLESS’ Coaster bus making a U-turn on the pedestrian crossing along Constant Spring is a popular example, and we have had many more.

SIGNIFICANT REFORMS

Many more significant reforms have been executed and some are very near realisation. Some changes already implemented to create a more efficient transportation sector include:

1. The implementation of regional approval of licences as opposed to the central approval system (licences from all over the island had to be sent to Kingston for approval) has reduced processing times from weeks to days.

2. Commissioning of a study at the University of the West Indies, which will seek to give additional insight into the value chain involved in the public transport sector business operations that will be used to inform important policy decisions.

3. Amendment to the Transport Authority Act to remove the clause that allows for the wrecking of vehicles, replacing it with a ticketing regime.

4. Uniforms have been implemented and are being worn by PPV operators to increase the professional look and feel of the sector.

In short order, we will also implement the renewal of licences on birthdays as opposed to the end of the financial year, which, over the years, has created an unpleasant overcrowding and burden on the system, both from a client and service-provider perspective.

The challenges in the transportation sector are many, but we look to the future with great acclamation as we explore the restoration of the rail network, and the introduction of electric buses, which has both long-term environmental and financial benefits, among many other innovations.

All these innovations occur as we revise the National Transport Policy to focus on the mass movement of people rather than the movement of vehicles.

The Ministry of Transport and Mining asks for the support and patience of the public as we seek to deliver on these and many similar commitments aimed at improving the sector.

Critique is always welcome as we are never perfect in the methods used in modernising and improving our public-transport system. However, I urge critics and especially Mr Wright and The Gleaner Company, with its great repute, to be factual in their analyses, adding credible value to the process rather than spewing unfounded and untrue narratives, which can only be interpreted as an attempt to derail rather than contribute constructively to our drive to prosperity.

I continue to work on behalf of and for the people.

- Robert Montague is the minister of transport and mining. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.