Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Politically driven bus fears

Published:Sunday | August 24, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Daniel Thwaites, Contributor

For those who flat-out can't afford it, like Mr Augustus Hyman, whose plight The Gleaner highlighted last Thursday, it's straightforward why they dislike the bus-fare increase.

One part of the policy discussion, if we had those things in anything like a rational way, would be to find out how to effectively get him support. But that has to be within the context of developing a decent public transportation system.

The idea of simply discounting all fares for all old people seems to me completely wrongheaded. Why should old people get a discount just for being old? I know we talk about ageing like it's an achievement, but this is taking it too far. To get old, you just had to get born, then avoid heart disease, stroke, respiratory infections, chronic obstructive lung disease, HIV, lung cancer, diabetes, chikungunya, typhoid, diphtheria, gunshot and knife wounds, politics, electrocution, liver failure, getting run over by a bus ... . Hold on! OK, so maybe IT IS an achievement to get old. But still! If we want to have a decent public transportation system, perhaps the old people who can afford it should pay a proper market rate for the ride.

Which leads to the question: What is a proper market rate for a ride on the JUTC? I'd like to know, because I find it impossible to come to a final opinion on the bus-fare increase without it. So I agree with Horace Chang's broad point that correcting management weaknesses and scrutinising efficiency reports should properly precede any fare hike. Mr Chang's leader, though, is kicking it up a notch. He's taking a stand in Half-Way Tree, by his lonesome self, if necessary. As leader of the Opposition, top man of a major political party, and pressing for advantage on a populist cause, I'm sure he will find some company. In fact, because I appreciate the need for some drama, I suggest Andrew stage the protest at the massive unused West Kingston bus depot with Audley's expensive 2011 off-budget buses as the background. We want to keep some of the reasons for today's financial austerity in the forefront of our minds.

True cost of a ride

Anyway, it seems to me that any rational opinion would have to be grounded in first knowing the true cost of a ride on the bus. It isn't part of the debate. The closest information is that the OUR recommended $131 for adults and $40 for concessionary fares, but that was five years ago. Significant costs for the service are in US dollars, and the exchange rate, let's agree, isn't what it used to be.

All the same, Minister Davies says the Government "agonised" about the increase. I believe him. But why did they? The question for me is, why this is a Cabinet decision at all? The Cabinet's agony will inevitably lead to a politically determined rate, not an economic one. Once it is a political decision, it attracts either praise or condemnation, resulting inevitably in Andrew's judgement that the increase is "wicked" and "inconsiderate". Don't blame him too much. He's just returning the favour from 2010 when the People's National Party resolutely opposed an absolutely needed fare increase. It really doesn't matter who's government and who's opposition for this part of the game to work.

We're all familiar with this circuit of cynicism. It leads directly into a mostly fact-free political 'debate' that's completely removed from sensible policy or economic reality, and pretty quickly dissolves into a showdown about who loves poor people more. After that weighty matter is resolved, then there's the 'last lick', which is to say that the other side (that is, whichever side you're not on) loves poor people so much they want to create more of them. The entertaining merry-go-round never seems to grow old, and the same argument is recreated over and over and over with increasing intensity and decreasing credibility for all involved. Ahhhh! Good times!

Political maturity

I certainly don't expect that the fun will be disturbed anytime soon. But if there can't be a rate hike without the country going into crisis, it means we aren't politically mature enough to have the bus system. And if EVERYONE needs a subsidy EVERY TIME, it means we're doing it wrong. While it's true that most public transportation systems worldwide are loss-making, we're broker than most, and the JUTC's losses have been staggering. Plus, please see the above point about political maturity for the provision of public goods.

Just a thought: Shouldn't the price of a ticket be the actual price of a ticket? That's the only chance at having a decent system that everyone will be willing to use, perhaps even ministers, MPs, and a permanent secretary or two. The Government would then have it within its power to consider subsidies, and apply them where appropriate. Instead, what we have now is a system built on near-indiscriminate sloppily applied subsidies, which means it's a system inherently incapable of lasting.

I don't think it's beyond our capacity to better target subsidies, except that the Government has really failed to organise an efficient cross-agency smart card, probably because there are too many fiefdoms and small-scale dictators in the civil service and political directorate. Information technology can tell me every web page I've surfed by in the 21st century, every penny I've spent using plastic, and my iPhone is tracking everywhere I go. It seems to me that a subsidised ticket ought to be available to students twice daily, to and from school, and to needy seniors. We have thousands of teenagers who could develop a smartphone application to achieve this, while also tracking the buses to tell commuters exactly when they will arrive. To me, the real issue is to whom, and how carefully, we apply subsidy, because that's actually what austerity measures amount to.

Once we're in the game of politically determining bus ticket prices, the barely veiled threat of social disorder will arise with every price adjustment. So adjustments will be too little and too late, and you end up with a system only for those who can't afford a motor car, perpetuating and reinventing social and class divisions for another generation. Perhaps we're too far into that journey to even rethink the destination? That would be my politically determined bus fear.

Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to