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PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO FIX IT?

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO FIX IT?
March 29
11:49 2019

By Major Llyod Jones

“Most of the public transport buses in Belize are old school buses imported from the USA with an average age of 25 years and about 80% are diesel. The bus service is very basic: seating is not very comfortable, air-conditioning is not available, and they lack facilities to handle luggage. The old buses are relatively cheap; however, this results in frequent failures, high maintenance costs, high emissions and high consumption of fuel.”

— Comprehensive National Transportation Master Plan, 17th April 2018.

In May 2018 the Government of Belize [GOB] launched its Comprehensive National Transportation Master Plan [CNTMP]. GOB had awarded, through the Office of the Prime Minister, a contract for ~$1.76 million to a French/Mexican consortium to write the said Plan for us. Yes, we paid foreign consultants almost $2 million for a 550 page report that could have been done by Belizeans.

Almost thirty-eight years after our independence, Belize’s public transportation system is in a mess. The system is full of old dilapidated buses and there are no decent bus terminals and worse; passengers still have to literally fight to get on the bus [which significantly disadvantages women, the elderly and children].

The entire public transportation network [both municipal and inter-District] is owned by the private sector. According to the CNTMP “Most public bus companies in Belize are very small, operating by an owner operator or a family-type operation. Thirty-nine percent (39%) of the companies operate only one bus, forty-seven percent (47%) operate with two (2) to five (5) buses. Companies operating ten (10) buses or more account for only four percent (4%) of the companies.”

There can be no doubt that the public transportation network lacks sufficient investments. But the current statutory framework does all but encourage investments by the private sector. In fact, Road Service Permits have become political treats that are granted only to loyal Party supporters. If one loses favour with the ruling Party one’s Road Service Permit can get pulled post-haste. In that kind of environment, who will invest in decent buses, which can run well north of $75,000 each, when they have to walk the political plank for a permit every two years?

Another factor that has impacted the award of Road Service Permits is the unwritten duty to provide transportation to the ruling Party whenever there are Party activities. In fact word on the street is that bus owners [including those with school runs] have already been told that they MUST provide transportation for the ruling Party come referendum day.

Party mobility therefore trumps your right to decent affordable public transportation. As long as bus owners dutifully provide transportation for Party activities, they can get away with anything including refuelling with passengers onboard, operating with onion skin tires, drunken drivers, overcrowding, reckless driving, etc.

In the latter part of the Musa administration there was an attempt to consolidate the public bus system into a national bus service through the Novelo brothers. That effort led to the scandal at the DFC; the Novelo Brothers would later fold and the DFC, if we are to believe the reports, was left holding the bag. No national bus service, no $15 million.

The idea of a national bus service is not a bad one although the DFC debacle has left a bad taste in the mouths of the Belizean people. Our challenge in Belize is that everything that is publicly owned is treated as a political football and as an opportunity to facilitate political supporters, never mind their lack of talent.

Belize needs a decent, well structured, efficient and affordable national transportation system. In fact GOB’s own study [the CNTMP] revealed that “there is a necessity of an overall restructuring of the public transport sector.” The government of Belize should restructure, with urgency, the public transport sector. It should build a new network including new, more efficient buses and terminals and then offer it to the private sector for management and operations. Such a system would yield great dividends for the Belizean people, not so much in monetary terms but in terms of ease of access to affordable decent public transport, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and greater energy security among others.

It has been almost twelve years since the Barrow administration came to power, more than enough time to have built for us a decent public transportation system that preserves the dignity of the Belizean commuter. An adequate transportation network would only cost about $35 million, not an exorbitant amount of money when you consider that the legal fees paid out in respect of BTL was reportedly somewhere in this range.

The Honourable Edmond Castro has been the Minister with direct responsibility for transport since the UDP’s 2012 victory but the PM chose to manage the CNTMP through his own office. Why that was remains a mystery but suffice to say that the public transport sector has not improved much under Castro’s leadership. In fact, if we are to believe the bus operators who appeared on national TV last week, it appears to be getting worst.

The operators are of this view because only last week news broke that Minister Castro granted permission for a Guatemalan bus company to operate inside Belize. Apart from the fact that Castro may be attempting to usurp the statutory powers of the Transport Board, the authorization of Guatemalans to operate buses inside of Belize does not bode well for Belizean operators currently in the market.

The Government spent almost $2 million on a transport study and it would be such a waste if they were to allow it to gather dust. Access to decent, safe, affordable and reliable public transport is critical to Belize development. In that context, it really is a shame that we have settled for this patch work that is our national public transportation network. What will it take to fix it Edmond? What?

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