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Friday, August 27, 2010

Getting around in New Providence!

The school year in The Bahamas starts off in full swing on August 30th. That means more road rage, late comers, accidents, short cutters through the petrol stations and all around Tom foolery. The road sight is not a pretty one, even during the off-peak season.

There has been varying reports on how much persons in The Bahamas spend on this stress called transportation. The number varies from anywhere between 20 to 30 percent of your salary on average on gasoline alone. Spending anywhere from up to $100 to $150 per week for a non delivery driver-- depending on your personal load (which can leave you quite broke) -- and with gas prices nestled at a comfortable average of $4.25 per gallon, that range estimate seems fair.

However, other reports have it that, roughly, only 20 percent of Bahamians use the public transportation system. Additionally, it is said that the average car per household is 3 for every 2 persons (I always wondered where some get these estimates?).

Why would one person need 1 and 1/2 of a car, is beyond me. But, that statistic becomes more severe in reality that when you travel the roads on a daily basis- with the ongoing road improvement project not making life any easier- you notice that the traffic on the island of New Providence is a miasmal mess.

Jitney (public transport buses) drivers are the worse. They would make Mother Theresa sin. They cut you off, block the road and stop anywhere to let on or off a passenger or just to count their change- I thought we had demarcated bus stops for all of this?

They, along with the idle day drivers- those people with absolutely nothing to do but drive around all day- need an intervention.

We need a better public transportation system on the island of New Providence, at least. We also need a comprehensive transportation system in Grand Bahama as well. But, Grand Bahama is for another article-- one word however, railway.

There was a position paper done by a few College of The Bahamas professors some months back. I have not had a chance to read the document, but some have been on the talk circuit, asking for change to the existing system. One change mentioned is that we should unify the bus system in The Bahamas, particularly for the system on the main island of New Providence, as a way to get more people out of their cars and on to te public buses. I have some thoughts on that.

During a discussion at a dinner with a few colleagues a while back, the issue about the public transportation system came up in that the individual bus owners, can't seem to come together on what the terms of an agreement on a unified bus system would entail. No party wants the other to be in total control, and no one wants to lose money if their routes were to change from one where it was profitable-- I wouldn't take that couchant, either.

A recognized bus union in The Bahamas, the Public Transportation Authority of the Bahamas (PTAB), has been working tirelessly, as it appears, in trying to create a unified bus system.

One of the things I think that they could look at, is that they should propose to the government or an investment bank, a plan for an intervention and attack the problem from a necessary, but yet expensive, standpoint. However, while it may be expensive in the short term, the long term benefit in that it would create a multi-shareholder monopoly union that is open to the market and would benefit us all.

What should happen is if that firstly the government should impose a moratorium on all new bus licenses. Secondly, government, with internal or external financing, should, by mandate, gather all license holders and make them one company.

Those who want out of the new company, their licenses should be forfeited and they should be given compensation in cash or with a minority share offering in the new company and paid out gradually.

The new multi-shareholder monopoly should finance a new and improved public transportation system, exclusive of taxi's and tour buses. This new system should be complete with new bus terminals, bus stops, a new route, new rate system and machines for fare top up's, modernized payment options, a new fleet of buses- eco friendly of course- and be open to the public via the national stock exchange, in order for investors to be able to participate as well enable the new entity to raise funds other than from private, angel investors or by random fare hikes.

The short term political pain would be with mandating bus owners into the new system. But, if compensation is financed via a pay out option for persons who don't want to be a part of the new company, as well as compensation for the loss of vehicle use during the transition period for persons who want in, these things should ease the burden of change. With that, a loan repayment that is sensitive to the issue of change, as well as creates a minimum bus fare floor in order to finance repayment in an orderly fashion, with sliding fares for peak and off peak times, this matter can be worked out-- before we get to performance bonds and the rest of the financial drolls.

Another pain would be during the transition period of the phase in of the new system. Sensitive execution is required, especially if licensees are to be compensated during the period of transition and also if the transition is gradual and phased in via the most used routes, as a way to minimize the effects of the temporary loss in service.

The long term benefits would be the upgrade of an essential public good, more persons using the public transportation system instead of their 1 and 1/2 cars daily, a new company to be listed on the national stock exchange, a cleaner environment, savings to the average consumer on fuel, an efficient and reliable bus service along with a new industry complete with everything from administrative staffing, to mechanics, to bus drivers along with the creation of a private sector entity, financed with government bonds or backing- an entity that can actually pay off its debt to the government or other parties or being co-owned by the government via shares, while providing a useful and essential public good in addition to it being sensitive to individual livelihood.

Whatever plans are worked out, government intervention is unavoidable if we are to break this stalemate- everyone knows, from the licensees to the average citizen, that we need a better public transportation system. One that is sensitive to the livelihood of the licensees as well as the public at large.
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