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Saturday 16 December 2017
Letters to the Editor

Building sustainable bridges

An August 24 media release from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) sets out five measures designed to improve the air and sea bridge service between Trinidad and Tobago. The measures come out of the August 21 meeting that the PM held in Tobago with a number of people affected by the ongoing inter-island transport difficulties.

First, the Government “has instructed the Port Authority (PATT) to broaden and hasten its search for a suitable replacement passenger ferry.” My understanding is that the Ocean Flower contract was cancelled on August 8 or 9. If so, there should have been no need for such an instruction, announced two weeks later. Shouldn’t PATT have immediately commenced a search for a replacement? Indeed, given the obvious problems surrounding the arrival in TT of the Ocean Flower, shouldn’t precautionary plans have been put in place even before the cancellation?

The OPM release also says that, previously, PATT had “restricted its search and selected a (vessel) under questionable circumstances.” (Not a vote of confidence in PATT.) That “restricted” search ended in the choice of the Ocean Flower. To what, and why, was it “restricted?” What were the “questionable circumstances?” But I imagine that, for answers to these and other concerns, we have to await the results of the various investigations now underway.

Second, the Government has decided to buy a “brand-new ferry.” Is it really necessary, I wonder, for the State to own a ferry? What are the economic and developmental arguments for such ownership? What, for instance, is the fit, if any, with plans for the growth of the marine sector? What could be the role of private enterprise?

Third, we are told that the PM “believes, given Tobago’s reliance on the ferry for sustenance, that the service should be operated out of Tobago and under the guidance of Tobago.” I’m not sure that your reliance on something logically suggests you should operate and guide that thing, but let that pass for now.

However, there’s the 1996 Tobago House of Assembly Act, about the “powers” in whose Fifth Schedule successive Tobago politicians have consistently bragged, and which confers on the THA the responsibility — circumscribed, I agree — for air and sea transportation. Why then would one have to say in 2017 that Tobago should be granted a right it has allegedly possessed for the last 20-odd years? You understand why I’ve always maintained that the 1996 legislation is nothing more than a political will-o’-the-wisp?

I have no problem with the concept and principle enunciated by the PM, but is the required infrastructure, human and material, in place in Tobago? I don’t know; I only ask. I have, for example, the CV of a Tobagonian who claims qualifications in port management and business administration, and who tells me he has found that his job applications always disappear from PATT’s files. Why would that happen?

Fourth, the release says that “PATT’s board will be expanded to give more Tobagonians a seat at the table.

The board currently has one representative from the island, and this is to be increased to three.” Section 3(2) of the Port Authority Act states that “the Authority” (ie, the board) “shall consist of no fewer than five nor more than nine persons … Of these persons, five shall be appointed from amongst persons who have special qualifications in, and have had experience of, matters relating to engineering, accountancy, law, economics or business management.”

According to the PATT website, the current board has seven members, so the addition of two people would take it to its full legally permitted complement. Whatever benefits the two new appointees may bring, I hope that at least five members of the present board satisfy the listed professional and experience criteria. Is that the case?

The fifth measure is a forthcoming Cabinet decision on Caribbean Airlines’ booking policy. According to the PM, “(w)e are operating a system where people can book at will and cancel at will without penalty… (S)eats … made available by CAL (must) give the best opportunity for nationals to travel.”

The PM is perfectly correct. You have visitors to Tobago who book several return flights to Trinidad but turn up only for the last-booked because “de lime was goin’ good.” No penalty attaches to this selfishness, which inconveniences others — a manifestation of our usual lack of responsibility — and it is more than time that sanctions were introduced and applied.

This is a matter I recall discussing aeons ago when, in BWIA days, I was chairman of the government’s Air Services Negotiating Committee. I cannot understand why in 2017 the practice continues unpunished.

One last word. Devant Maharaj has asked the President to intervene in the sea bridge issue. I suggest Maharaj reads section 80(1) of the Constitution.

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