The significant decline in public revenues following the global downturn in the energy sector has led Trinidad and Tobago to abandon plans for a multi-billion-dollar mass transit project. The decision was part of a set of measures announced during a mid-year budget review in April 2016, and the government is now focusing instead on increasing public transport vehicles on the road at subsidised prices. Other measures introduced by the newly elected government include the elimination of fuel subsidies and the introduction of incentives for the use of natural gas as an alternative fuel, both of which are expected to accelerate a transition towards cleaner energy.
Recognising the need to improve public transport in T&T, the government engaged the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to advise on the feasibility of a mass transit system. According to Colm Imbert, minister of finance, a number of options were analysed, including light, heavy and mono-rail, elevated and underground railway systems, as well as tram and bus systems. In October 2015 Imbert said the government was involved in ongoing discussions with the IDB for the implementation of a TT$10bn ($1.54bn) light rail system.
However, six months later the government announced that it was abandoning the project. “It has been determined by the experts at the IDB that the proposed mass transit project is expensive and not feasible at this time in the present environment of severely depressed oil and gas prices,” Imbert said during the mid-year budget review. Instead, the state will work to facilitate public transport at subsidised prices by increasing the number of public transport vehicles on the road, while investing in road infrastructure and raising fuel prices to ease congestion.
The move is expected to lead to a revamp of the state-owned Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC). Established in 1965, the PTSC is the sole operator of the country’s public bus service. Since its establishment, the public entity has seen its offering and fleet increase significantly; its network now spans 159 routes and its fleet, which comprised 100 buses in 2004, was made up of 400 full-sized buses, including articulated buses, as of 2015. In addition to the national bus transportation service, the PTSC now provides charter bus and specialised transport services, as well as a contracted school service.
However, with limited funding and maintenance capacity, the PTSC has been unable to meet service demand. “Because of capacity constraints we are currently meeting about 70% of our service,” Brian Juanette, deputy-general manager of operations at PTSC, told OBG. As a result, public transport remains inadequate and unreliable, with services operating in the absence of a published schedule.
Due to financial constraints, the PTSC has been particularly slow to automate processes and adopt the necessary technological equipment to increase efficiency. The last effort to automate operations was introduced in 2012, with the installation of a GPS system. The move was supposed to be the first step in a multi-stage upgrade, with the introduction of an intelligent system to integrate dispatch, on-street information displays and geo-polling to follow. The final stage would see the addition of an electronic ticketing system. However, as of mid 2016, only the GPS system had been implemented.
A lack of adequate maintenance facilities continues to undermine efforts to improve services. “One of our main challenges is maintenance. We had procedures and business processes in place to maintain 100 buses, but with the rapid expansion of our fleet, we have not been able to catch up.” Juanette told OBG. “At times we’ve had to cancel routes, and in some areas there is little sustainability and predictability of services.” High maintenance costs are also linked to the excessive variety of bus types in the PTSC’s fleet. “There are currently 27 different types of buses running in T&T,” Ronald Forde, general manager of PTSC, told OBG. “We will soon implement a plan for the rationalisation of our fleet to two to three types, according to international best practice.”
The PTSC is focused primarily on meeting service demand on the priority bus route (PBR) connecting Arima to Port of Spain along Trinidad’s densely populated east-west corridor. Though it has been able to launch new services over the years, including a deluxe coach service from Port of Spain to San Fernando, long-haul options remain limited and rural communities severely underserved.
To a large extent, the private sector has helped fill the gap in public transport in T&T, through a shared-taxi system known locally as “maxi taxis” – a network of an estimated 5000 distinctive 12 or 25-seater white vehicles with coloured bands. Like the PTSC, maxi-taxis operate primarily along the PBR, serving Trinidad’s east-west corridor from Port of Spain to Sangre Grande. Though maxi taxis do not follow a fixed schedule, they charge competitive rates with fixed fares for each leg of the journey and sometimes operate as a door-to-door service, making them a particularly popular choice with locals.
In recent years, the network of maxi taxis has seen its market share increase relative to the PTSC, after the latter’s competitiveness was affected by a series of labour disputes and ensuing strikes, one of which saw services interrupted for a period of two weeks. “We have had a history of poor relations affecting operations, with several work stoppages before 2015, so the confidence and reliability that we had been able to instil in the public was lost,” Juanette said.
In a bid to lower the cost of public transport vehicles, the government announced tax reductions in April 2016 for maxi taxis and taxis, a measure which was due to be introduced in May 2016. However, as part of a set of measures to lower public expenditure, the government is moving to gradually eliminate the subsidy for super gasoline and diesel. The latter is the most widely used fuel by buses, maxi taxis and goods vehicles. According to Imbert, fuel subsidies had cost the country some TT$31bn ($4.8bn) in the 10 years to 2016, with an average yearly cost of over TT$3.5bn ($539m) in the 2009-14 period as oil prices soared, exceeding 2% of GDP. The price of both super gasoline and diesel were raised by around 15% in October 2015 and April 2016, with a cumulative increase of 32.23%. The cost of super gasoline, at TT$3.58 ($0.55) per litre, was no longer subsidised as of April 2016, while the cost of diesel, at TT$2 ($0.31) per litre, reflected a reduction in the subsidy to around TT$1 ($0.15) per litre. A phased approach to the elimination of the diesel subsidy was designed to minimise the impact on lower income groups, the primary users of public transport, according to Imbert. Longer term, the government plans to move to a new pricing regime tied to international oil prices.