By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
A unified New Providence bus system would not “do away with” the island’s traffic congestion woes by itself, a leading engineer suggesting the main goal should be to increase public transportation usage by making it more attractive.
Ray McKenzie, a transportation/traffic engineer and principal of Caribbean Civil Group, recalled that the idea of unified public transportation has been looked at since 1993.
“A tremendous amount of credit goes to any government of the day, and the stakeholders, that can bring this to fruition,” Mr McKenzie said. “My concern is that the expectations conveyed, whether intended or not, are such that when we get a unified system all the traffic congestion woes will go away the next day.
“Those expectations will be specious at best. What a unified system will do is bring order, coherence and predictability to the public transportation system. All of those are great things and great objectives. However, the overarching goal in terms of combattng congestion is to increase ridership. The question is how do you get those motorists who have an alternative mode of transportation out of those vehicles and into a bus system?”
Mr McKenzie added: “I think, quite frankly, the country squandered an opportunity 20 years ago when we were in the planning process of this transportation infrastructure upgrade projec,t which was just completed substantially in 2013.
“When we were in the planning stages of that particular road infrastructure upgrade, we should have really looked at creating a holistic and sustainable transportation system that looked at attractive modal shifts and a system that would create space efficient transportation.”
He said: “During the upgrade we added 33 major road miles of reconstructed and new highways, which is fantastic. Motorists will tell you it reduced their travel time significantly.
“However, on the flip side we graduate approximately 5,000 students each year, and one of the first thing they want is a vehicle, which they see as a symbol of independence.
“Each year we are adding thousands of additional trips on to our roads, which stands to reason that you cannot build yourself out of this. Our approach should be holistic and sustainable in that regard,” Mr McKenzie said.
“Twenty years ago, in addition to the upgrades, we should have considered things such as exclusive bus lanes, exclusive cycle lanes, adding more sidewalk to the system where we encourage walking, so that when we unify the bus system we would have given the vehicle drivers a viable alternative means to shift modes of transportation to get from origin to destination.”
Glenys Hanna Martin, minister of transport and aviation, in an interview with Tribune Business earlier this month described New Providence’s public transportation system as “a major failing”, adding that the new public busing system being proposed by the Christie administration would call for “comprehensive coverage”.
She said: “In terms of where we are now, we have appointed a committee which we have called a steering committee, and which comprises the owners who have been selected or elected from the industry, along with other government stakeholders - the Ministry of Finance, the Road Traffic Department as well as the Ministry of Transport and Aviation - and we have been looking at a lot of things.
“Right now we are seeking to update a business plan that was done several years ago. Pursuant to that they have been trying to put a value on the industry.”
Mrs Hanna Martin added: “In the last several weeks the industry stakeholders have been working with the Government in speaking with the bus owners to try and get an idea as to what is the value of the industry.”
A 2005 unification plan called for the creation of a single bus company, in which franchise holders and owner/operators will be given shares.
The plan also spoke to raising equity to capitalise the unified company through an initial public offering (IPO), and recommended that the Government be given a 20-30 per cent equity stake “at no cost” to it and the taxpayer. The 790 franchises issued in 2005 were then valued at a total $12.3 million.
Mr McKenzie said the challenge for a unified bus system in New Providence would be increasing ridership by making it sufficiently attractive to existing motorists.
“The question would then be what is the benefit to leaving my vehicle at home? Some of the obvious benefits would be a great reduction in travel time, less stress, less money being spent on fuel and those types of things. I think while a unified bus system is great, the expectation that is going to do away with congestion is specious,” said Mckenzie.
He said Jamaica has added bus lanes in an attempt to create attractive transportation use shifts.
“When we are in the planning stages of making these massive infrastructural upgrades, it would have been even more cost effective to initiate this overarching goal; that is, reduction of congestion at that time,” Mr McKenzie said.
“All is not lost. We can retrofit, but that will cost more than if it had been done initially. The retrofit would be to some of those corridors that have concrete medians. Perhaps those medians can be removed and bus exclusive lanes added.
“We would have to be selective as not all corridors have the right way where this can occur.”