Transport operators unhappy despite minister’s praise for sector

EFFORTS by portfolio minister Robert Montague to reassure public transport operators of the Government’s commitment to the sector may not have appeased all, as one association has thrown cold water on his sectoral presentation in Parliament yesterday, in which he said operators have benefited from $150 million in assistance this financial year.

Head of the Transport Operators Development Sustainable Services Egeton Newman told the Jamaica Observer that the minister had “wasted his speech” with “pretty words” that has not changed his group’s decision to withdraw their services today. He said a final decision would have been made last night. Newman said the minister’s use of the names of persons on the executive of associations was a ploy to try to avert possible action by the operators today. “We know what we are going through. This will not prevent some people from saying they can’t take it any longer. The minister wasted his presentation by calling names,” he remarked. Newman also said he did not expect the promise of legislation to have the Office of Utilities Regulation determine transportation fees to materialise any time soon. Montague said the Government had moved to make changes to the law, to have the OUR objectively decide the fares. Furthermore, Newman said, those changes should have come years ago, and the announcement simply meant more waiting time for the operators. Outlining the grants and assistance offered to the sector, the transport minister said only about 4,000 out of 14,000 operators who were eligible to take up the Government’s offer of a $25,000 special COVID-19 grant. But Newman categorised this as “a joke”, pointing out that out of the 35,000 operators, last year only 15,000 of them were able to renew their licences, which were a condition of being eligible for the grant.“ The minister very well knows that only a few of us can take up that offer because most of us did not renew licences last year. If you had outstanding tickets you couldn’t get the assistance so we know that it was only a few who could receive the grant. We understand what he was doing, he is playing with words there,” he claimed. Stressing the impact of the COVID crisis on the operators, Newman noted that his membership earned an average of to $12,000 to $16,000 daily prior to 2020, but that this has plunged to an average of $4,000 daily, and they have to cope with rising fuel costs.

Montague, meanwhile, pointed out that Government spent $75 million to assist contract carriage operations who were given a 100 per cent discount on their licence fees, since their earnings were virtually wiped out due to the pandemic. Additionally, a 30 per cent discount on licences was extended to route operators, amounting to another $75 million.Newman, in lamenting the worsening indiscipline in the sector, said is as a direct result of the pie being too small to accommodate all the operators, including the illegal ones, who are now plying the various routes.“You have around 8,000 taximen running around Half-Way-Tree, then you have about seven or 8,000 more white plates running for the same dollar so there must be a lot of foolish mistake on the road,” he argued.Newman, however, welcomed the minister’s suggestion that associations should look to diversify their opportunities and earnings by establishing enterprises such as car and tyre dealerships, and insurance firms.Montague stressed that the Government is sympathetic to the struggle of the operators. “As rough and tough as it is for the transport operators, they are the first to tell you that the ordinary person, especially those who have lost a job, is finding it even harder. We understand the everyday struggle of the ordinary man and that’s one of the reasons why I respect the workers in the transport sector. They have a compelling case for a fare increase but equally make a case for others in need,” he said.The minister said that as part of efforts to retool the industry, the Government will be reclassifying routes to a fairer system, so that rural operators pay less for licensing than those who operate in areas which have a greater passenger uptake.

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