The government should allocate more to public transportation instead of the Prime Minister’s Department

Is Kota Belud MP Abdul Rahman Dahlan having a “let them eat cake” moment when he asked motorists who complained about the toll hike to “wake up earlier and avoid tolled roads”, putting the blame on the victims instead of admitting the government’s incompetence and short-sighted planning failures when it comes to public transportation?

A French queen, when being told that the rioting peasants had no bread to eat during the famine, is said to have responded, “if they have no bread to eat, then let them eat cake”. This incredulous statement fueled the anti-monarchy revolution which saw a massive uprising against the aristocratic classes that were seen as selfish and far removed from the struggles of commoners.

Today, a modern day version of this fable seems to be taking place in Malaysia. The Minister’s callous statement shows a lack of regard for the financial pressures faced by ordinary Malaysians who are struggling with the effects of a weak economy, plunging ringgit value, and rising inflationary prices.

Two weeks ago, the government announced that it was bound by lopsided concession agreements with toll companies to raise fares in 18 highways in the Klang Valley from between 10 sen and RM3.

A huge hue and cry took place with many motorists complaining that they would have to pay more in toll fares, despite the lack of improvements in KL’s perennially congested roads. Meanwhile, concession companies are raking in profits long after the cost of building the highways have been recouped. The government refuses to use its power to intervene.

Why should motorists pay more for no improvement in service?

The question on everyone’s lips was, “why should we pay more, when nothing is improved?” Klang Valley highways’ notorious jams are often worsened during peak hours or during flash floods. Contrary to what the Kota Belud MP thinks, most motorists do not have the luxury of taking alternative roads, because there are none! Even if another route is available, it may not save the road user from a jam.

While motorists are crying foul, the Minister simply throws up his hands in the air and calls it a “trade off”.

Yes, it is a trade off. For the government, it is a trade off between subsidising public transport or building more highways, slashing the budget for non big ticket items or prioritising more “essential” expenditure (such as the unprecedented increase in the allocation for the Prime Minister’s Department) while reducing allocation for areas such as education and transport.

For the motorist, it is a trade off between paying for toll or getting home for dinner with your family, or to be in time to pick up your children from child care, or to pull in longer hours and order takeout in the office again, or to move house to reduce commute time that could be two hours, or to take public transport.

However, even the option of public transport is less attractive now that KTMB has announced a fare increase for its KTM Komuter services. With this new hike, there is no escape for commuters intending to avoid tolled roads. The KTM fare increase of 36 percent will make a dent in commuters’ pockets, with a journey from Mid Valley station to KL Sentral (one station or 6.2km away) now costing RM1.50 instead of the current RM1 fare.

Why should the public subside KTMB’s losses?

KTMB president Sarbini Tijan told a the press that the fare increase was the last resort in the firm’s bid to stem its losses, as Putrajaya usually does not approve the full subsidy amount requested by KTMB. He added that the transport provider was affected by the plunging ringgit as its spare parts were purchased in US dollars.

The burden of higher transport costs in Malaysia’s less-than-stellar economic climate should not be transferred to the consumer. In the event of uncertain economic circumstances and increased inflationary pressure faced by the ordinary folk, the government should provide better and more affordable public transport.

The social duty is incumbent upon the government to facilitate and ensure competent provision of public transportation services to the public. It should not fall on the shoulders of the public to pay for the losses incurred by KTMB.

The government must invest more in public transportation just as it invests in national health care and education. These are basic public goods that all Malaysians need for better quality of life.

This higher cost of car usage and public transportation will push people to use motorcycles instead, leading to higher traffic fatalities – Malaysia is home to the highest road deaths per capita.

I have argued before that each time the petrol price goes up, motorcycle deaths increase, because the lower income group is forced to switch from cars to motorcycles as their mode of transport.

This is the best time to lower public transport fares to encourage Malaysians to shift from the private transportation model, to buses and trains. Without a vision for a comprehensive and sustainable national transportation agenda, we will be stuck with more expensive highways and more tolls to pay without solving the issues of congestion and the need for better end-to-end public transportation.

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