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Coaster bus owners lash new JUTC sub-franchises

By BALFORD HENRY Observer senior reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, March 17, 2014    

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The majority of owners of the popular Toyota 'Coaster' buses operating in the Kingston Metropolitan Region's (KMTR) public transport system are likely to drop out of the system, with the changes planned for April 1.

The bus owners have informed both the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing and the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC), that they will not be able to meet the new cost of operating within the system, after the deadline.

"Our main issue is the fee set by the JUTC for a 'Coaster' bus to operate within the franchise starting April 1," head of the Western Transit Association (WTA), which represents most of the 'Coaster' buses, Bruce Miller, told the Jamaica Observer last week.

Miller said that more than half of the WTA's 150 members, operating over 220 buses in the KMTR, were already threatened with losing their licences from the JUTC announced last year that it would "retake and reassert ownership of all routes" in the KMTR.

The JUTC said that this had become necessary because of its losses, due to an increasing number of private bus/taxi operators encroaching on some of the 70 routes for which it has exclusive rights, and that the situation had reached crisis proportions.

JUTC offered sub-franchises for some of the routes, and eventually evaluated 368 applications from operators seeking those routes. The applicants have since been sent letters explaining whether or not they were selected, and what was the procedure to complete the process.

However, 'Coaster' operators denounced the activity after they found that they were only being allowed four routes - Kingston to Above Rocks, Kingston to Border (St Andrew); dowontown Kingston to Hellshire; and Half-Way-Tree to Hellshire - all of which they concluded were unprofitable and not worth the $288,000 per annum cost of the route licence.

Minister of Transport, Works and Housing, Dr Omar Davies, intervened and, after hearing their concerns, proposed that they be given 29 more spaces, based on the number available but taken up previously.This relieved the tension and the operators cooperated with the extended deadline for applications, until they found that the additional routes would cost them $756,000 each per annum.

"We are saying thanks to the minister, but no thanks, because we cannot afford $3/4 million to run a bus for one year, where, in some cases, the $750,000 is more than what the bus is worth," Miller stated.

"In addition, there are other payments that we have to make within another two to three weeks: We have to repaint the buses, and we have to change the fitness and the registration to reflect the change in colours; that is an additional $150,000," he said.

"We told the JUTC that we could not afford the $756,000, and they said that we would be able to earn enough to pay it, when they remove the illegal operators off the routes. But, we told them to remove the illegal operators first, and let us see how much more we could earn and then we could consider continuing, but they haven't responded. We know that unless you put out a team of robocops, you will never get rid of the illegal operators," Mille added.

"The main point now is that we are upset that they are going to put half of our members out of business, because they cannot afford these fees, come April 1," he pointed out.

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