The public transportation system in Belize is a national embarrassment. Thirty plus years after independence the Government of Belize continues to preside over a public transportation system that is rudimentary, inefficient and unsafe. On a daily basis thousands of Belizeans are crammed like animals into retired US school buses and the Ministry of Transport seems lost and inept. This is not entirely the making of the current Minister responsible for transport but if he does not take the necessary corrective action (as difficult as they may be), he too, like his predecessors, will be condemned by history.
To be productive a society must be able to find a way to efficiently and safely move people for work recreation and daily living (school, shopping, health, etc). Labour needs to be able to flow to the parts of the country where it can be the most productive and for a great majority of the Belizean labour force that means taking a bus.
Public transportation, however, is more than just about economics; itís also about the environment. When people canít rely on the public transportation system they look to private means of transportation to fulfill their needs. More cars on our roadways places additional stress on an already dilapidated infrastructure but more importantly, it means greater stress on the environment. Ten buses carrying a total of 450 persons have a smaller carbon footprint than 225 private cars carrying 2 persons each. Those Belizeans who already use their own private vehicles will tell you how addictive it can be. When people get use to private transportation they are less likely to go back to public transportation, so air pollution, traffic congestion and demand for expensive fuel imports will only increase in the face of the current system.
The single greatest impediment to an improved public transportation system in Belize is the outmoded and corruption prone process of granting road service permits. Belize must move away from this political based system to a market based one. The Ministry of Transport must clearly and transparently establish the standards to be achieved by service providers. These standards should include the types of buses, driver education and training, maintenance and safety, a balanced fare-setting framework and a robust commuter protection mechanism. With such a system in place, there would be no need for a Transport Board (a political institution that has been the basis of failure in the public transportation sector).
The Department of Transport should assume full and direct responsibility for licensing of service providers and for the monitoring and the enforcement of the standards; true competition and a level playing field would take care of the rest. To protect the smaller operators the Government should provide access to cheap money in order to allow them to upgrade their fleet of buses. However such support must be conditional upon the smaller operators coming together and working in a cooperative like fashion in order to create efficiencies.
The public transportation system is critical to the development of Belize and the Minister responsible for transport has to demonstrate some measure of leadership if we are to see our way through this national crisis. He must resist the temptation to assign road transport permits to political cronies and he must not allow party hawks to compel him to punish those perceived to be of a different political hue.
The Belizean commuter also has a role to play in all this, itís called civic action! Fi real!
Major Lloyd Jones (Retíd)The Belize Times