'Misguided, unsustainable' - Transport minister slams brakes on rural school-bus project
Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer
THE Minister of Transport, Works and Housing, Dr Omar Davies, has applied the brakes to a plan hatched by his predecessor, Mike Henry, to have the cash-strapped Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) operate a rural school-bus programme.
Addressing Parliament on Tuesday, Davies was adamant that the JUTC was not in a position to embark on such a project.
"We are cognisant and Parliament accepts that not only is the JUTC making significant losses, but to simply take on additional losses is just not feasible," he said.
The minister was responding to queries from Opposition Spokesman on Finance Audley Shaw during Tuesday's sitting of the Standing Finance Committee of Parliament, which met to examine the first Supplementary Estimates for the 2012-2013 financial year.
Shaw accused Davies of putting the balance sheet of the JUTC ahead of the safety of rural children and questioned whether instructions issued by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to determine how a school-bus programme could be accommodated were followed.
CONSIDERING OTHER OPTIONS
"We have answered to the prime minister's request," asserted Davies, who also noted that a study was being carried out on steering a proposed school-bus programme away from the clutches of the JUTC.
"We are seeking to structure a system whereby the service would be provided by private operators under regulations laid down by the Transport Authority," said Davies. "This would not require the Government to be involved in the provision of buses … . That would be misguided and would not be sustainable."
Challenged by Shaw, Davies said the continued haemorrhaging of the JUTC would jeopardise the school-bus programme, which would start with a pilot of 30 buses.
"Recently, Cabinet approved an exchange of cheques to write off over $1 billion in unpaid statutory deductions to the NIS (National Insurance Scheme), NHT (National Housing Trust), and taxes and outstanding pension payments for the JUTC," said Davies. "Against that background, it would be ill-advised for the JUTC to take on additional responsibilities when it cannot meet the existing obligations."
However, Shaw said: "What I am concerned about is that you are mixing up the welfare and safety of our children with a discussion of the balance sheet of the JUTC."
However, Davies countered: "The prime minister's instructions are being carried out but in an organised, analytic way to determine how reliable, safe transportation can be provided to schoolchildren, and there is no monopoly about the concern for the safety of our children."