While the Center Party and the Pro Patria Res Publica Union (IRL) are still debating free county coaches, the Estonian Road Administration is moving forward with Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson’s (Center) plan.
The latter prescribes a mandatory price of “zero” for tickets on county lines from July 1, without leaving public transport centers a say in the matter.
Head of the administration’s public transit department Kirke Williamson said that contracts of carriage are being updated so that the ticket component will be paid for by the state from the second half-year. “That is what we have been tasked with by the ministry,” she said.
Free county transport will be mandatory in all regions. “Because we have equal treatment in county transport, it will be free for everyone. The money is there and cannot be used for anything other than compensation for ticket revenue,” Williamson explained.
This also means that IRL’s competing proposal of allowing public transit centers to decide how to use the money – as prescribed by the coalition agreement – will not be applied.
Williamson said it would be impossible: “State money cannot be distributed like that: the government cannot simply give money to NGOs,” she said. “A good analogy would be distributing health insurance fund assets to hospitals.”
The reason is the public transport act the provisions of which could be summed up as follows: public transit centers can apply for whatever they wish before July, the director of the road administration is obligated to lay down prices proceeding from the parliament’s will and Simson’s maximum allowed price regulation.
“In this case, the legislator has expressed clear will that passengers will not be charged for tickets on county lines from July 1,” Williamson said.
Chairman of the Riigikogu Economic Affairs Committee Sven Sester (IRL) said that his party disagrees with Center’s plan. “We do not accept what the minister has proposed as it is not what we agreed on in the coalition agreement, and because it does not seem sensible to us. We have communicated as much to the Center Party,” he said.
Sester said that rather ticket prices should be harmonized, infrastructure given a once-over, and lines and departures revised. That is the work of public transport centers that requires funds and freedom of decision.
IRL proposes allowing centers to decide where to invest based on the situation in the county: whether it’s abolition of ticket prices or something other. “It is important not to be irresponsible and promise everyone free transport, and rather to channel these resources into developing the network,” Sester said.
Sven Sester, you’ve said the coalition is still debating this matter. How far have you gotten in your arguments with the Center Party?
We have addressed the problem. Debates are underway, and it is more sensible to comment on final agreements as opposed to intermediary stages.
How does IRL plan to proceed should Kadri Simson refuse to accommodate IRL’s proposals before July?
This is a coalition government, and I’m sure all sides will proceed based on that knowledge.
How much of a principled matter is this for IRL? Are you after political points, or would you be willing to defend your vision even if it led to the dissolution of the coalition?
We accept that parties to the coalition have different visions in various fields. Public transport is one of those areas. I’m sure all sides are trying to find common ground in this matter.
Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson
Where and how often coaches depart and how to make sure they would depart more frequently will be up to local public transport centers to decide. It has been one of IRL’s demands, and I totally agree.
I have also held numerous constructive conversations on public transport with the Social Democrat Party (SDE). They are first and foremost interested in the existence of all manner of hybrid solutions where county lines are combined with taxi services. It is the future as our smart devices keep getting smarter.
There is no practical solution that could be used based on a public service contract today, while the ministry has decided an innovation group will start looking for synergy between county coaches, social transport, school buses, and other means of transport. If a functional solution is found, who could object to the ability to commute when it suits people instead of the fixed departure times we have today. Initial tests will have to take place in a single county, and it has the potential to be a pilot project for the whole of Europe.
We will keep an open mind when developing county bus traffic, and I will definitely hear out IRL’s additional proposals.