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Dreaming our problems away

Sailosi Batiratu
Sunday, December 02, 2012

"We need dreamers."

When he uttered those words, Transport Planning Unit (TPU) director in the Ministry of Works, Lui Naisara, was talking about addressing our transport issues with the resources we have but in an innovative way.

From the outset of discussions about the way forward after 11th National Transport Consultative Forum (NTCF) that was held last month, Naisara on several occasions stressed the importance of all involved working together. He said those who still had a view that the system was about "us and them" should do away with it and adopt a different outlook.

"We live in a 'we' era," he said.

He said the outcomes from the 11th NTCF would be used for government's strategic plan which would have to be in line with the 20-year Fiji National Transport Sector Plan that was drawn up by the Asian Development Bank under a technical assistance program in 1993.

He said this 20-year plan was divided into five-year periods to allow for assessments "so that we know where we are heading".

Asked on the relevance of Singapore's experiences to Fiji, Naisara said despite the obvious differences in their being a developed nation with five million people and we a developing country with less than a million, there were similarities. Both, he said, were island countries and had to deal with finite resources. He said learning from such a country would not harm us as bigger countries, even the People's Republic of China, were also learning from Singapore.

"It's best to have a vision. If they (Singapore) have done it, why can't we?" And repeated it is imperative that we all work together.

He says our traffic problems are not as bad as that of developed countries as we live in a "controlled environment" where the travelling public is not that much and our congestion problem is not that bad. Despite this, Naisara says efforts should always be aimed at addressing our land transport issues with our given infrastructure. And from the point of view that any piece of infrastructure is an investment, some returns should be derived from it.

"When you reduce congestion, you reduce vehicle emission. With reduced vehicle emission, there is a reduction in maintenance and operating costs, there is better travel time which should lead to better travel time which in turn should lead to better productivity."

He said the problem of focusing on building more roads to solve congestion was that there would come a time when we cannot just build any more roads. Naisara pointed out most forms of (physical) development involve the use of land which mean the land transport sector competes with these other forms of development for "the same piece of land".

On whether Fiji could emulate the success of Singapore's public transport system, the TPU responded with an emphatic "yes". He also was quick to point out "it's going to be a challenge".

Focusing on a specific mode, he said government had taken the lead by reducing duty on new buses to 5 per cent in the 2012 Budget. He said the $250,000 spent previously to build buses locally could be used to buy two luxury coaches from abroad. This he firmly believes has led to some bus companies purchasing buses which saw their passengers travelling in air-conditioned comfort. Naisara such a move could have resulted in some members of the travelling public once again opting to travel in buses.

He said improvements could also be seen in one of the bus companies servicing the Suva-Nausori route. This particular company he said, apart from increasing its fleet, had also "lifted its game" by allowing their passengers to travel in comfort.

These are two of the approximately 50 companies that provide bus services in Fiji.

On government playing a central role in the provision of these services, Naisara said it would be an "expensive exercise". He said government would have to buy out the 50 or so companies which would involve calculations based on projected earnings.

In a later conversation, Naisara said the laws of the land were the "minimum standard" to adhere to. Bus transport providers he said could, among themselves, discuss and agree to certain standards and specifications for their services. These agreed upon standards could also include penalties to be incurred if any member failed in his or her duty to the group and obligation to the public. But it would have to involve everyone working together.

He also referred to the Orion Report which has led to the introduction of e-ticketing for schoolchildren. The aim is to have e-ticketing for the general public as soon as it's practicably possible.

Naisara said this would allow government and the Fiji Revenue and Customs Authority to have an accurate picture of the income of bus companies. It will also help owners curb pilferage which Naisara says has been estimated to be between$2-4m a year. An article found on government's online portal, quoting Fiji Consumer Council chief executive officer Premila Kumar, says it is $7m a year.

On the other hand, it also gives owners a leverage, better bargaining power when dealing with government and others with an active interest in their sector. He said with e-ticketing in place, it would allow for companies to sell packaged deals to commuters.

The director envisages a day when the travelling public is able to travel using two or more modes of the public transport system after having paid only once. This he says would more or less be the case if and when the hub and spoke model is successfully implemented in rural Fiji. Savusavu on Vanua Levu together with Keiyasi and Vunidawa on Viti Levu have been visted to check for the viability of such a venture.

In this scenario, several carrier operators would carry passengers and cargo to one hub. A bus then transports people and the cargo to town. Naisara said an davantage of this was that carriers and buses would not compete for business for the entire length of the same route. Another is that carrier owners can have an arrangement with bus owners to use the mechanics at the bus company's garage when needed.

He said bus owners could also sleep better at night knowing their assets were in the garage and not somewhere its security depended on the goodness of the inhabitants of that area. Naisara mentioned this had been the practice when he was the district officer at Nadarivatu with buses overnighting at Naqelewai and Nadrau villages. He said nothing bad had to happen. Just the fact the bus was out there was a risk for the business.

Queried on the success of the NTCF, Naisara said the forum was the culmination of a process. This he said included having talanoa sessions in the three transport subsectors of land, air and sea, for which there was a first for the maritime sector this year.

As part of the informal process, he and the Land Transport Authority chief executive authority had had talks with the Fiji Bus Operators Association and the Fiji Transport Union.

At this level, the TPU director said there were a lot of informal and free discussions. Some of the matters raised are solved and addressed before the NTCF.

The Q and A sessions at the NTCF Naisara said was where "new ideas are raised because this is where people who may not have been engaged in the informal talanoa sessions are".

As part of what he defines as the "we" era, he said people in one of the three subsectors could always invite government to be part of their processes or discussion platforms.

The 11th NTCF was in his view a "record" as it had been attended by an estimated 190 people over the two days. Previous counts Naisara said had stood around the 150 mark. Despite the increase, Naisara pointed out that "some people prefer to be observers and then offer their criticisms".

On matters pertaining to air travel, he said they "engaged as much as possible" with the Department of Civil Aviation that is now under the Ministry of Public Enterprise.

His parting shot was: "We all have to work for the common good. Otherwise we fragment."

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