By Floyd French

Observer Reporter

(Basseterre, St. Kitts) –  Bus drivers in St. Kitts were harshly criticised by the travelling public after some of them refused to work on June 2.  Many commuters have since refused to patronise the service of those drivers who took part in the industrial action that won them an increase in fares to offset the rising gas prices they pay at the pump.

However, the President of the West Bus Association, Mr. Dale Hughes said that a subsidy on gas prices was their chief negotiation request when he and the representative of the two other bus associations met with government officials on June 2 and prior.

Fares went from $2 to $2.50, $2.50 to $3 and from $3 to $3.75.

“We went into government requesting some increase on the fares.  We also included certain proposals such as subsidisation of the gasoline which was one of our premiere proposals,” he said.

The president expressed regret and disappointment that their chief request was denied.

“The position of Mr. [Minister] Martin, he said that he would not subsidise any gasoline for bus drivers.

“I was very disappointed because it is very important that government share some of the burden because we don’t expect the commuters to bear all this expense,” Mr. Hughes said.

Repeated request for an interview with an official from the Ministry of Public Work, Utilities and Transport went unanswered.

The price of gas prior to the last increase in bus fares was around EC$8 per gallon.  Today the price of gas has almost doubled and is now over EC$15 per gallon.  Without a subsidy on the price of gas for bus drivers, Mr. Hughes said the fare increase was the only option and he added that the increase still fall short of what is needed to offset the cost of operating the service.

“You are looking at like a100% increase on the gasoline bill and if you want to equate this and get it from any source and the only source left is the fare it simply means you will have to double the fare,” he said.

Consideration for the travelling public has led the drivers to accept the modest increase without government giving up much of its stake in the crisis.

“It is very unfair,” Mr. Hughes said of the prospect of commuters paying a 100% increase in fares.  “I personally have family and friends who travel on buses, children, everybody travel on buses so we have to look into ourselves at the same time,” he added.

Mr. Hughes is keen on the global and cross industrial implications of the rising cost of oil.  He pointed out that the high cost of oil has resulted in an increased cost of other related products such as motor oil and tyres.

Government has given grounds on some of these additional costs and has agreed to increase the duty concession on tyres, brake parts and other operational needs.  Again, Mr. Hughes feels more is needed.

“We would like to get all replacement parts on vehicles duty free because if you cannot give the gasoline, like remove some taxes from the gasoline, we have to take it wherever we can get it,” President Hughes added.

Another proposal put forward by the drivers was for government to help in the creation of a more effective bus association, an association akin to the Taxi Association.  Mr. Hughes said regulation is key to avoid chaos.

The government appears to be complacent and is not enforcing the cap system put in place a few years ago to control the number of buses serving the travelling public.

“It was said, I didn’t hear it, that it was thrown out through the window, there is no cap now,” Mr. Hughes said.

“When I brought up that issue with the Minister of Public Works and Transportation, Mr. Martin he said under the WTO ruling nobody could disenfranchise anybody from becoming a business, sole operation, but they are doing it for the Taxi Association,” he noted

The management of the issuance of bus licences, in the President’s view, would allow a bus associate to place new buses on routes where buses are needed.

“We asked them to certify, just get a system in place so you could certify bus operators similar to the Taxi Association,” he added.

The bus service is characterised by fierce competition among drivers, many of whom do not belong to any bus association.  Certification, Mr. Hughes believes, would rein in the rogue drivers and offer an improved service for the public.

He also pointed out the police should be at the terminal to enforce queuing and orderly departure.

“You have to take back the handle from the passengers who come and dictate whose bus they want to get into.  No problem, if they want to jump into Tom’s bus and Tom’s bus is number ten, well probably they don’t have anywhere to go,” he said.

He is optimistic that a regulated bus service would also serve the tourism industry since the bus service is advertised on the internet as a cheaper means of transport for tourists.

Mr. Hughes, who has 18 years as a bus operator, reiterated his solidarity with the travelling public even in light of no foreseeable change in the price of gas.

“I personally don’t think the commuter is the one who should pay all this cost, I’m not pushing anything against government or any government in particular.  The people are who we serve and you cannot kill them for they will find other means to avoid using the buses,” he said.