Jan. 9, 2005The VITRAN bus system spent $4.2 million in operating costs this fiscal year, but generated only about $250,000 in revenues over the past 11 months.
According to Lawrence Sylvester, VITRAN's operating manager, the discrepancy is in part due to a lack of government funding. At a Senate meeting Monday, Sylvester said the government allotted the system $3.1 million this year $1.1 million less than was needed to help pay employees and acquire new equipment to get buses fully functioning.
"My suggestion is that the government identify a reliable funding source for VITRAN, since public transportation is a necessity in the territory," Sylvester said, adding that of the $4.2 million needed, $3.3 million is spent on personnel costs and $94,000 spent on fuel.
Sylvester said that a reliable funding source would allow VITRAN to replenish its bus fleet throughout the territory, bringing the number of buses running on St. Thomas up to 16, on St. Croix to 10, and on St. John to four. Sylvester said the fleet was cut after the government assumed control of VITRAN in 2000 and the buses had to double up on routes.
"Even now, we have to turn away passengers at the bus stations," Pepsy Wilkins, VITRAN's territorial maintenance director, said. "We need the extra buses so we can take care of those passengers."
Denise Meyers, office manager of VITRAN on St. Thomas, said that about 237,000 residents use the bus system annually, with 600 to 650 individuals per day on St. Thomas, and about 1,000 residents per day on St. Croix.
When asked, Sylvester assured senators that the system would be able to bring in more revenues if a funding source is identified. He said that revenues have increased 50 percent since May, after new VITRAN buses were put on the streets.
"VITRAN has not been given the attention it needs over the past several years," Sylvester said. "Our goal is to rebuild the system and have a bus running for every area on an island. We can also create more jobs, stimulate the economy, and overall be able to streamline our transportation system."
He added that VITRAN is currently working on a needs assessment, which will be submitted to Public Works Commissioner George Phillips under whose purview VITRAN falls within two weeks. He said the proposal also discusses the setting up of transfer stations on each island so buses don't have to run extended routes and distributing questionnaires to passengers for bus service rating.
Sylvester said he is currently in negotiations with the government and private landowners to set up a transfer station at Mandela Circle on St. Thomas.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, who chaired Monday's meeting, suggested that VITRAN be a part of the Motor Vehicle Bureau, which was made into an independent agency last September. Donastorg said the bureau, which could potentially generate up to $18 million annually in revenues, would be able to sufficiently sustain the bus system and make sure that it remains operational.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone added that the dollar taxis that operate on St. Thomas also be given a place under Motor Vehicle Bureau. Malone said the taxis "filled a void" when VITRAN was not operating, and should continue to be used until the proposed system is complete.
"We need to have some uniformity with our transportation," he said.
Bond proceeds were also discussed as a means of funding. In November, an amendment introduced by Sen. Roosevelt C. David and subsequently signed into law by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull allows the Legislature to authorize the Public Finance Authority to float $65 million worth of GARVEE bonds to finance the purchase of 20 new buses for the territory, as well as provide money for new ferries and general road repairs.
At Monday's meeting, Sylvester said he is not entirely familiar with the specifications of the amendment, but plans to use the money for new buses.
Also discussed at Monday's meeting was the status of VITRAN's employees, who Meyers and Sylvester said have been classified under temporary status since April 1995.
Karen Andrews, chief negotiator for the Office of Collective Bargaining, said the situation is "not as bad as it looks." Andrews explained that when the government took control of VITRAN's operations from a private company in 2000, the company's collective bargaining agreement was also transferred. Under the agreement, Andrews said, VITRAN employees would continue to be represented by the local chapter of the United Steel Workers Union as long as they are temporary employees.
The government also fully subsidizes employees' pension, health and dental plans, she said.
Meyers told senators that the health and pension plans are "no good."
"When I'm 62 years-old, I'll only be receiving $258 a month under this pension plan," she said. "And when I go to the doctor, I have to pay 80 percent of the costs up front, and it takes time before I'm reimbursed."
Andrews told senators that she has written to Phillips about the plans, and asked him whether St. Thomas' VITRAN employees would be better served under the permanent status given to St. Croix employees. Andrews explained that because St. Croix's VITRAN employees organized after 2000, they were given a different collective bargaining agreement – permanent government employee status – and a place in the Government Employees Retirement System.
Andrews said she has been waiting for Phillips to assess which plans are best, but has not yet heard from him on the matter.
Donastorg said he would be conducting a follow-up meeting within the next few weeks to see if any additional progress has been made to improve the system.
Present at Monday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Donastorg, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Malone, and Terrence "Positive" Nelson. Sens. Louis Patrick Hill and Ronald Russell were absent.
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