By Raffique Shah
September 14, 2017
The sittings of the Joint Select Committee of Parliament that is probing the procurement process of two ferries, maybe three, were broadcast live on television and are said to have displaced the leading “soaps” in popularity among television and radio audiences. Predictably, they generated juicy scandals that implicated politicians and corporate and professional hustlers who feast on the multi-million-dollar, taxpayer-subsidised Port of Port of Spain (PPOS).
However, nothing that was revealed was unsuspected or original. The population knows the culprits by reputation if not names. But it must have given them some delight to see big men and women squirm in their seats as they admitted to inconvenient truths, probably misconduct in public office, and likely corruption.
The miscreants know, though, that soon another scandal will displace the ferries fiasco from the media headlines. They will quietly retreat into their mansions that were built on ill-gotten gains, monitor their bulging bank accounts and other assets that are outperforming the national economy, and plan their next raid on public funds through lucrative contracts or professional fees, matters not which party is in power.
The ferry service between the islands will continue to be unreliable at best, maybe chaotic, but say what? Those who paraded before the JSC knew all along that it was never intended to address the real problems with the sea-bridge, or call to account those responsible for its failures.
Indeed, in their haste to waste time on this useless probe, the parliamentarians no doubt forgot that in another incarnation merely three years ago (2013-2014), the then JSC charged with probing statutory authorities and state enterprises conducted a comprehensive inquiry into the administration and operations of the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (PATT), which included the inter-island ferry service.
That JSC was chaired by independent senator Victor Wheeler, and included on its 12-member panel Bhoe Tewarie, Tim Gopeesingh, Alicia Hospedales, Kevin Ramnarine and Lester Henry. It held a number of meetings, summoned port officials to appear before it, examined documents, accounts and plans, and reported to Parliament with the number of recommendations.
Specifically pertaining to the sea-bridge, it found that “…in addition to receiving government subsidies for the Inter-Island Ferry Service, the PATT also receives funding from the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP). Notwithstanding, it was noted that the PATT suffers an annual loss of approximately over $200 million.”
Between 2005 and 2013, total revenue for the ferry service was $639.5 million, while expenditure amounted to $1.997 billion. In other words, the ferry service over which many interest groups and individuals with dubious agendas are waging war, loses approximately $200 million a year. When this sum is added to the $200 million annual loss in port operations (mostly cargo), some $400 million of taxpayers’ money “drowns” in the murky waters off the port every year. That’s more than a million dollars a day.
Globally, port operations are a good indicator of a country’s trade, hence the state of its economy. Many ports are huge profit centres (Shanghai and Singapore are two leading examples), contributing substantial revenues to their national coffers. In T&T, the PPOS has never made a profit-or if it did, no one remembers when.
That relatively small port employs 770 monthly-paid workers, 44 of them senior managers, and 816 daily-paid workers. I should add that “dock workers” are among the highest-paid in the country’s workforce. Add sundry contractors and consultants, and you get a clearer picture of why PPOS was “born to lose”.
The 2014 JSC report noted of the sea-bridge annual loss: “…The most obvious strategy for increasing revenue is to increase passenger and freight fees. However, we are mindful that current economic and political conditions may render such an option as untenable or politically unattractive…”
So no government will increase the ferry fares, rein in the wanton wastage (overtime payments are astronomical), or rationalise the country’s ports, all because of politics.
Readers should note that the annual subsidy for the air-bridge is approximately $150 million, the water taxis absorb $40 million, and PTSC $140 million.
So while irregularities in the procurement process are relevant to any examination of the failures in the ferry service and port operations, there are more fundamental issues that need to be addressed if we want to staunch the bleeding of public funds at both these entities.
I intentionally provoke an unholy war by advocating the phasing out of PPOS as a cargo port, and the expansion of Port Point Lisas (PPL) as the main cargo hub, with La Brea being secondary. PPOS will be reduced to servicing the inter-island ferries and cruise ships. Increase the ferry fares by maybe 50 percent. And scrap the water taxi service, or completely remove the subsidy it enjoys.
Such radical changes would free up huge acreages of prime PATT real estate that can generate profitable rents. And the city of POS would also be freed of convoys of container-cargo trucks that clog it main arteries every day. With minimal infrastructure enhancements, PPL can become an efficient and profitable port.
I welcome debate on these proposals.