After 20 years operating “at a loss”, transport industry asks for “ease”from Government and commuters
BELIZE CITY, Wed. Sept. 19, 2012
The Independence Day weekend will see a 1-dollar increase in the fare for bus operators working the Western Zone between Belize City and Belmopan, including stops in the villages along the route, from $4.00 to $5.00.
Technically speaking, however, it is not an increase. In fact, $5 was what customers should have been paying all along, because for the distance of 50 miles between Belize City and Belmopan, operators are legally mandated to charge $.10 a mile.
Operators in the Belizean Bus Association (BBA) this week went public with their concerns that in order to keep up with the major increase in the cost of living since the last re-alignment of fares took place in 1992, commuters should pay the rate legally agreed upon.
This afternoon, president of the Association, Thomas Shaw, was in meetings with Minister of State (Transport), Edmond Castro, who since taking over the portfolio following March’s general elections, has been on a campaign to clean up the industry in the wake of the national embarrassment that was last May and June’s imbroglio between the authorities and the Association over the distribution of runs in the Northern and Western Zones that climaxed in a fiery protest and a later court case.
The Minister has said that while the operators are not technically breaking the law, he wants to be sure they are not trying to deflect attention away from the Ministry’s list of 37 regulations that bus companies must adhere to in order to keep and receive their road service permits and licenses, to which it shortly intends to ensure compliance and which are also the law.
The Ministry, said Castro, is especially serious about stopping overcrowding and standees on buses. Each company has their time slot and if there are more customers needing transport than can fit on the bus, it is law that a bus on standby is called in to take the overflow. It is simpler and safer, he told us, to have more than one bus in a slot on the road than courting disaster with an overcrowded bus.
This afternoon, BBA spokesman Patrick Menzies told Amandala that commuters should see that it is “common sense” that “if everything else has gone up, the cost of tires, oil, oil changes, has increased, why then shouldn’t we expect that bus fares will go up?”
We asked Menzies why the BBA is now insisting on charging the “correct” price on this particular route when all along operators had been charging less. He replied that “complications” from the overflow of operators and the resulting heavy competition is to blame. The realignment is expected to take place in three phases, but further details are not yet forthcoming pending possible agreement with the Ministry.
He also pointed out that non-BBA member Westline Bus Service out of Cayo is already charging the $5.
Menzies told us flatly, “we don’t care what the Ministry says,” when we mentioned that any realignment was to be done only with their approval. While pointing out that Minister Castro is not spoiling for a “fight” with operators and is only asking that they meet the 37 standards agreed to, he insisted that there would be a “showdown” if necessary.
According to Menzies he has spoken to bus commuters on two BBA-member services, James Bus Line and D and E from Cayo, and heard no objections.
Following a meeting on Tuesday, the Association demanded of the Ministry that operators be given lower fuel rates, duty free and tax exemptions on parts and equipment for buses, realignment of the cost of road service permits to a “more realistic rate,” membership for the BBA on the Transport Board and the reinstatement of BBA member Skai’s Bus Line to the Ladyville/Lords Bank – Belize City run. These matters are on the table in Shaw’s discussion with the Minister this afternoon, which is ongoing.
Saturday’s “realignment” will also affect the route from Maskall on the Old Northern Highway to Belize City and prices for “short stops” ($1.50) and for students ($1).
Menzies gave us two examples of the disparity the industry currently faces in trying to service its customers. An operator from the Burrell Boom area pays an $800 charge for his road service permit to travel 18 miles to Belize City, while James Bus Line, a national carrier operating from Punta Gorda, 210 miles south, pays the same amount for a much greater distance.
Earlier this week, Minister Castro reported personally witnessing a Shaw’s bus on the Western Highway headed toward Belize City, having to pull to the side after a tire blew out and the spare was found to be deficient. After a replacement bus was sent down that had no license plate, customers had to wait for a third bus to arrive before continuing to their destination.
The reality, said Menzies, is that many operators cannot afford to replace tires on their buses (now costing $800) and have basically been operating at a loss for years, not to mention having to contend with the “chaotic, underhanded activity” taking place at the Transport Board.
Minister Castro previously told Amandala that only two companies, James and Westline, have valid road service permits currently (up to 2013), and the remainder are being made to comply with the regulations to get theirs, the validity period of which the Ministry is looking at expanding from two years to four to accommodate companies’ concerns about acquiring necessary finance to comply with the Ministry regulations.