SEVERAL groups have expressed their objections to last week’s decision by the communications ministry to increase bus fares and scrap free travel for students and pensioners. A single fare and a weekly pass were increased by 50 per cent, to €1.50 and €15 respectively, while the monthly pass by 33 per cent. These seemed significant increases, but only because the fares were very low to start with.
The previous government, which had undertaken the initiative to upgrade public transport did not do its homework regarding costs and charges. The investment was too high, the fees it agreed to pay the bus companies operating the routes were too ridiculously generous and the fares it decided to charge were too low. Hence, we ended up with an unviable model that has been costing the taxpayer too much.
While nobody expects the state to make any money from a public transport system, it does not mean nothing should be done about the big losses it incurs. Even if the state was not facing acute economic difficulties, cutting losses should have been an objective. Now it is an imperative, if the bus service is to be preserved so it can carry on transporting the pensioners that the government’s critics are so concerned about. Under the new scheme, pensioners and students are still entitled to a 50 per cent discount, paying a 75-cent fare, which is pretty low.
When the government takes such a decision, it should defend it and not allow its critics to take the offensive. In the case of the buses, Communications Minister Tasos Mitsopoulos said that the “increase is necessary because of the high running costs”. Perhaps he should also have explained how much money was being lost every month thanks to the poor planning, unrealistic forecasts and ultra-generous subsidies to the bus companies.
The other thing that government ministers should keep repeating is that our state cannot afford to provide services for free. It is an impoverished and heavily indebted state that does not have the resources to be generous but is obliged to live within its very modest means. And they should also remind everyone that the main reason the state is bankrupt is because it had been ultra-generous with borrowed money for too long.
For too long, people saw the state as a benevolent, mega-wealthy uncle that was always willing to pick up the bill. So much so, that on the rare occasions the state did not do so it was accused of not performing its duties and responsibilities properly. Now is the time for people to learn that in the Cyprus of the memorandum nothing will be for free and that the good old days are over for good.