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The 'duppies' of JOS/Jolly Joseph still haunt the JUTC

GARFIELD HIGGINS

Sunday, August 31, 2014    

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I would argue that one of the issues which the public should be much more emphatic about with all politicians...is patronage, appointing people to high positions becausethey supported your campaign or helped you raise money. — John Hickenlooper

IT is not in our individual or collective interest to witness the demise of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company. Indeed we cannot go back to the cruel days when 'schoolers', boys in particular, were persona non grata on minibuses; when pregnant women were sometimes forced to stand because a middle passage-like transportation system made scores of us callous and vicious; when young women feared going on the bus because perverts lay in wait to rub themselves against their bodies, using the 'sardine tin'-like conditions as conduits to satisfy their deviant sexual obsessions.

There was a time in Jamaica when headlines like these were commonplace in the national newspapers: 'Middle passage minibuses', 'School boy kills 'ductor', 'Shotta buses; dangerous rides', 'Preacher rebukes pregnant woman on Coaster bus', 'Four die in Clarendon minibus crash'; 'Sex Coasters the newest fad'.

There was a time in Jamaica when it was de rigueur that you took a bath immediately after taking a ride on public transportation in the Kingston Metropolitan Transport Region and many other parts of Jamaica. How did the cruel times in public transportation come about? As I wrote in this space some weeks ago, this was how it started:

"In the early 1970s, in keeping with the new direction of Michael 'Joshua' Manley and what was called Democratic Socialism, the Jamaica Omnibus Service (JOS) [nicknamed 'Jolly Joseph'] which was generally efficient [with respect to cost and the quality of service that it offered to commuters — at least those are the recollections of persons I consulted] was nationalised. Nationalisation was consistent with Manley's thrust for Jamaica to 'own the commanding heights' of the economy.

Of course, so many were so drunk on the ideological kool-aid of socialism that scarcely anyone in the Manley Cabinet apparently asked whether Jamaica could have afforded the role of being the provider, saviour, and sole arbiter for all, from the cradle to the grave.

After Government took over the JOS, fares were kept artificially low, scheduling of buses fell apart, frequent breakdowns became commonplace, and management of the service went south.

This created a vacuum, which was filled by enterprising owners of small buses and taxis, who delivered a comparatively faster and 'reliable', but largely illegal service.

Naturally, the JOS was not able to compete with these minibuses and 'robots'. By 1983, the illegal service all but conquered the Corporate Area transportation system and this forced the Edward Seaga Government to turn off the engines of the supremely loss-making JOS... The 'Jolly Joseph' should have been restructured, retooled and rebranded, not retired." Sunday Observer May 18, 2014.

To P J Paterson's credit, a seismic shift was made in public transportation in the KMTR in the late 1990s, and all administrations have sensibly improved on the system subsequently.

But what are the realities that confront us today with regard to the operations of the JUTC? The Gleaner's Gavel, of Monday, August 25, 2014 presented the details of the problem:

"Since 2006-2007, the taxpayers have forked out $4.5 billion in budgetary support to run the JUTC. In the last two years, the Parliament approved a total of $1.1 billion in budgetary support to the JUTC, and it seems the company has got at least $900 million more, which is yet to come to the attention of the Parliament.

Davies said last week that, over the last 12 months, $2 billion in support has been given to the JUTC.

But outside of budgetary support, this albatross has been getting more than its fair share of support for capital expenditure to do projects such as the purchasing of buses and spare parts. This year alone, the JUTC is getting $3.1 billion to buy new buses. This is in addition to $1.8 billion it received last year and $2.1 billion in 2012-2013; $2.2 billion in 2011-2012; and $6.5 billion in 2010-2011.

Put another way, the total support from the taxpayers to the JUTC, which benefits mainly people in the Corporate Area, is more than $20 billion in less than 10 years. The last five years have seen the JUTC receiving $15.7 billion for capital expenditure alone.

Added to that, the JUTC last year benefited from $4.8 billion in PAYE (pay as you earn) write-off, having failed to meet its legal obligation for the payment of these taxes. Instead of paying over the money, which would have assisted in buying medicine for the hospitals, the JUTC used it to plug a gaping hole in its stomach.

The company is losing $150 million per month. Davies has provided data which indicate that the company's losses have worsened 22 per cent over the April to July quarter, when compared with the corresponding period last year. The loss for the four-month period this year is $685.1 million. This is an average of $171 million in losses per month."

To say that these numbers are frightening is an understatement. These numbers give rise to some questions. Is the current board, its chairman and managing director, to be held accountable for this scary state of affairs? Further, what are their experience and background in the management of public transportation vis-à-vis those who manage public transportation in, say, New York and London?

Here is a snippet of the profile of the present chairman and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), North America's largest transportation network, which serves a population of 15.1 million people in a 5,000-square-mile area fanning out from New York City through Long Island, south-eastern New York State, and Connecticut.

"Thomas F Prendergast is a career public transportation professional.

He was named president of NYC Transit in November 2009 and served as interim executive director of the MTA from January 1, 2013 until his appointment as chairman and chief executive officer was confirmed by the New York State Senate on June 20, 2013. Mr Prendergast is former CEO of TransLink, the public transportation system in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

A native of Chicago, with a systems engineering degree from the University of Illinois, Mr Prendergast began his career at the Chicago Transit Authority in 1975. From there, he joined the US Department of Transportation in Washington, DC, then moved to New York City Transit in 1982 as assistant director of system safety. In 1984, he was named chief of the System Safety Department. In 1987 he became Staten Island general manager, and in 1989, the agency's chief electrical officer. In 1991, he was named senior vice-president of the Department of Subways, and in 1994 he became president of the Long Island Rail Road." MTA Homepage

How does the CV of Dr Garnett Roper, chairman of the JUTC, or any member of the present JUTC board match up to Prendergast's? While Roper is a forthright and affable man, the question must be asked, does he possess the required competencies to direct/inform the operations of a First-World-type bus service?

For those who would say Roper and the present board inherited most of the debts and problems, to a large extent that is true. But what is also true is that some of his predecessors similarly had comparatively limited competencies in directing public transportation.

Those realities are even more reason we must urgently staff the JUTC with people who have direct training and specific experience in the running of a First-World-type public transportation system. There are Jamaicans throughout the globe who have the competence that forms the basic requirement for the efficient directing and management of Jamaica's public transportation.

JUTC's Managing Director Colin Campbell has had a controversial political career, to put it mildly. I do not believe, however, that a man's past must be his fate or future. That aside, though, how does Campbell's experience and background match up to, say, that of Peter Hendy who heads the operations team for Transport for London [TfL]? Hendy's major responsibility as enunciated in this statement is instructive.

"Hendy and his team are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the capital's public transport network, managing London's main roads and planning and building new infrastructure.

No other city is as defined by its transport system as London, with its red buses, black cabs and Tube trains instantly recognised the world over.

Every day around 24 million journeys are made across our network. Every journey matters to us and we do all we can to keep the city moving, making sure the transport network is safe, reliable and fit for the future.

The TfL manages London's buses, the Tube network, Docklands Light Railway, Overground and Tramlink. We also run Barclays Cycle Hire, London River Services, Victoria Coach Station, the Emirates Air Line, and London Transport Museum.

As well as controlling a 580km network of main roads and the city's 6,000 traffic lights, we regulate London's taxis and private hire vehicles and the Congestion Charge scheme." TFL Homepage

Here is a synopsis of his biography.

"Sir Peter Hendy CBE was appointed commissioner of transport for London (TfL) in 2006, having previously served since 2001 as TfL's managing director of surface transport.

He led and played a key role in preparing for the successful operation of London's transport for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Sir Peter was formerly deputy director, UK Bus for FirstGroup, and previously managing director of CentreWest London Buses, managing it in London Transport (LT) ownership, leading it through a management and staff buyout with venture capital backing, and subsequent expansion. He started his transport career in 1975 as an LT graduate trainee.

Sir Peter was elected President of the International Public Transport Association (UITP) in May 2013. He was President in 2011/12, and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, and was also chair of the Commission for Integrated Transport from 2005 to 2010. He was knighted in the 2013 New Year's Honours List, having been made CBE in 2006."

What is paramount in Jamaica is misguided political patronage which often gives way to economic common sense. While I fully understand the need to have key organisations peopled by those who are sympathetic to political parties in power, those appointed must have the required skills, competence and background to achieve measurable objectives in the interest of the taxpayers.

Indeed, history seems to be repeating itself. One of the major reasons that the JOS or 'Jolly Joseph' failed was related to the fact it became a 'feeding tree' for political hacks who were as knowledgeable about public transportation as shoemakers are about performing brain surgery. Why have we not learned from the mistakes of the past? Is it that we are obsessively in love with our problems?

There needs to be a management overhaul at the JUTC, and a new management must have as its first agenda item a thorough forensic audit of all the operational elements of the company. Will this recommendation be heeded by those who have power? I rather doubt it. Why?

Simply because political considerations, informed by a politics of 'spoils and scare benefits', are far more important in this country than the economic health of organisations that are set up to serve the overburdened and IMF adjustment fatigued Jamaica taxpayer.

Until there are fundamental constitutional and cultural changes in how we govern ourselves in Jamaica, politics will always win over economics and we will continue to face and feel the whirlwind of our folly.

Speaking of economics, I have said in this space that, unless the economy of this country begins to grow by on average 5 per cent per quarter and people start to feel and see the results in their pockets and upon their daily lives, we will continue to see the rapid desolation of organisations like the JUTC.

Simply, no government can sustain a bus company that is haemorrhaging to the tune of $150 or $160 million per day. By the same token, no government, especially one where the economy is experiencing anaemic growth of 1.1 per cent, which is forecast to continue well into 2018 -- assuming there are no major local and international shocks, eg oil crisis -- can afford to subsidise a public bus company to the tune of $2 billion dollars per year, except for a short time. The bottom is going to fall out of the bucket, and very soon too, if we do not grow the economy.

Even with the best management from whichever part of the world at the JUTC, if the majority of Jamaicans are not earning incomes to enable them to afford a decent public transportation system and other basic needs, the company will sooner than later run aground.

The issue is not the $20, $10, or even the initial 200 per cent bus fare increase. The crux of the matter is that people are not earning the required kinds of incomes to enable them to afford not only bus fare, but food, rent, clothes, mortgage, and other basic necessities.

Claude Clarke, minister of industry and commerce for a time during the P J Patterson-led Government, last Sunday reiterated the reality that most of us have come to realise about Jamaica's growth prospects given its current solo trajectory:

"Unfortunately, Government's present economic programme is designed almost exclusively around fiscal consolidation aimed at extracting revenues from a static economy to service our gargantuan debt. It is almost devoid of strategies that can stimulate economic growth. This myopic attention to the debt could eventually become the agent of the default that is so feared.

Under this debt-repayment-first growth-later policy, the only growth that is likely is the swelling of the ranks of the poor by former members of the middle class...

Contrary to the Government's expectation that a few large projects carried out by the Chinese for their own global strategic advantage will drive Jamaica's economic growth, it is equity capital invested in the broadest swathe of productive activities that will do so. But the likelihood of this happening has become slimmer over time."

Meaningful, sustained economic growth and urgent management changes are the only hope for the survival of the JUTC. The clock is ticking.

"People have to make journeys, what we want is people to have alternatives in public transport so that they can make a choice about the sort of way in which they're going to travel." Theresa May, UK home secretary and minister for women and equality

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Comments to higgins160@yahoo.com

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