Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer
Legitimate school-bus operators in the Kingston Metropolitan Transport Region (KMTR) are up in arms over the number of illegal operators being allowed to carry the nation's children.
The bus operators, who are licensed by the Transport Authority, are getting support from the police, who have decided to take aim at these illegal bus operators.
Several parents depend on these private buses to take their children, in relative comfort, to and from school.
But chairman of the Portmore School Transport Association (Contract), Hector Rowe, has complained that illegal operators are threatening the survival of registered school-bus operators while the Transport Authority is placing roadblocks in the way of those who are following the rules.
According to Rowe, the arrangements under which the Transport Authority administers the school-bus system has been flawed from conception and nothing has been done despite a plethora of appeals to various ministers over the years.
Rowe charged that the Transport Authority has also failed to clamp down on illegal school-bus operators.
"From 2004 when the organisation was formed, the Transport Authority has done nothing to regulate the school-bus programme despite frequent representations," said Rowe.
Children in peril
The veteran transport operator complained that children travelling in the illegal buses are left to the peril of the flawed system, as the vehicles are not insured to carry them.
In the case of an unfortunate accident, there will be no compensation or support for the children who are injured.
Rowe revealed that as a prerequisite to granting a licence to operate a school bus, the Transport Authority requires that each operator submit proof of 12 contracts to transport children.
"The first obstacle at the outset is being able to secure these contracts if you are not operating. You can't have those 12 contracts if you are not working, so you would have to be working illegally to get those contracts."
Rowe further charged that legitimate school-bus operators face a second hurdle in the form of unfair taxation.
"When they (tax auditors) are auditing us, they assume that we work seven days each week, 12 months a year, when we only work five days weekly and nine months for the year," argued Rowe
He said the school-bus operators are given licences similar to taxi operators and that is unfair.
"When we are applying to Transport Authority, we indicate that we are school-bus operators … it is for this reason that they ask us for the contracts from parents, after which they would do their due diligence," he said.
Rowe noted that under such an arrangement, the school-bus operators are not able to perform legally during the school breaks.
He charged that while his organisation has a membership of 34 bus owners, the roads are teeming with illegal school buses, spawned by the flawed system.
"There are more than 60 illegal buses in Portmore alone. There are far more illegal buses than legal ones," added Rowe.
He said frequents attempts to hold meetings with transport ministers in successive administrations were unsuccessful.
"The authorities are not doing anything about the problem - neither the police nor the Transport Authority," declared Rowe.
"How must we find the money to pay the taxes under the new system this year when 60 per cent of the school-bus operators are operating illegally.
Head of the Police Traffic Division Superintendent Radcliffe Lewis admitted that enough attention has not been paid to illegal school-bus operators in the past.
However, Lewis, who is also a member of the board of the Transport Authority, promised that this will change in 2013.
"We have been dealing with the school-bus issue, but not many arrests are being made," Lewis told The Sunday Gleaner.
"They actually have children in the vehicle and pull off immediately when the police are on their trail as their cohorts use telephones to alert others who are running illegally."
Added Lewis: "We plan that this school year we are going to do some more, as most time they have children roaming in a moving vehicles, which is dangerous."
He said some illegal school-bus operators beat the system by registering the vehicles for private use instead of acquiring a public passenger vehicle (PPV) licence.
"They use white plates instead of PPVs to circumvent the revenue issue. We should definitely be paying more attention to this."