New life on the buses?
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New life on the buses?

Two weeks ago, the cabinet appointed a new board for the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA). This 48-year-old public mass transit body has a bad reputation as a poorly run state enterprise with a gigantic toxic debt.

The nine board members are being touted to play a major role in resuscitating this financially comatose agency.

The board faces an almost insurmountable task. The BMTA is laden with debt of 140 billion baht, seemingly without hope of making a fresh start.

For over four decades, the agency has been used as a welfare arm for governments to provide cheap public buses to commuters.

Being barred from making a profit, the BMTA's finances are a calamity. About 2,000 out of its 3,000 buses are over 20 years old.

Yet the names of the nine people to join the board raise questions about whether the Srettha administration can make any substantial change.

Except for members who represent key ministries such as the Finance Ministry, more than half the board members are relatively unknown staff working for politicians or unelected candidates from coalition parties.

Familiar names include Defence Ministry spokesman Jirayu Houngsub and former Royal Thai Police Region 5 Commissioner Piya Tavichai who is spokesperson of the Palang Pracharath Party.

Whatever they represent, these politicians have one thing in common -- they lack any experience in mass public transit management. It is reported the new board's first priority is to oversee the renting of new electric buses for the BMTA.

But the BMTA's problems go beyond replacing buses. It can only be hoped that the Srettha adminstration will give attention to improving public buses rather than fancy airports and speedy trains.

Without reliable and accessible public transport, the dream of some that Bangkok will become a sustainable city where people can leave their cars at home if they want to will remain just pie in the sky.

Previous governments approved a master plan to reform the BMTA and write off its bad debts.

For instance, the Transport Ministry in 2013 proposed a master plan to reform the BMTA by replacing its old fleet with 3,000 new buses that run on cleaner fuel, using an e-ticket system and having all buses installed with GPS. A debt haircut was also proposed.

Former transport minister Saksyam Chidchob also recommended the government help clear the BMTA's debts to give the agency a fresh start.

It sounded good, but yet all the BMTA has been given so far is band-aid solutions -- renting new buses at inflated prices or even giving up good routes to private operators.

The future of this state enterprise looks bleak. The Srettha administration must make a bold decision to reform the public bus agency and write off its debt sooner rather than later.

Developed nations and famous cities do not just have fancy airports and photogenic trains as their drawcards; they are also places where public bus services are seen as reliable, modern, and accessible.

They are places that summon the famous quote by Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogota and now president of Colombia, who said: "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation." How sad that Bangkok is just a reverse image of this.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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