By Orville Williams
Bus operators at both the East and West bus stations say while they are concerned about the financial impact of this week’s gas and diesel price hike, they are equally worried about the potential impact on the pockets of their customers.
The increase went into effect on Tuesday, meaning motorists will now have to pay $15.70 per gallon for gasoline – up from $12.50 – and $15.50 per gallon for diesel, up from $12.20.
This, of course, is due to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent fallout which has seen Russia hit with heavy sanctions from several territories, and global uncertainty shaking the fuel industry.
The consensus among many of the drivers who spoke with Observer yesterday, on the condition of anonymity, is that the fuel price increase was basically inevitable, given what is going on in eastern Europe.
However, they voiced displeasure with the fact that there were no immediate plans announced to buffer the impact, particularly on the public transport system, which has been struggling for nearly two years due to the ongoing pandemic.
The drivers admitted that the fuel subsidy afforded by the government during the height of the pandemic, and which continues to this day, was not enough to make ends meet as they were being forced to transport reduced passenger numbers.
Even now that they have just been allowed to return to pre-Covid capacity, they say the increased fuel costs will only eat back into the earnings they have long been anticipating, and for most, operating their vehicles is their main source of income.
One solution to this issue is a long-awaited fare increase, something the bus drivers have been advocating for for several years, but – in a show of great compassion – they say doing so right now would severely affect their customers.
“We are definitely due a fare increase, as we haven’t had one for well over a decade, and so many of the costs associated with operating a bus – fuel, mechanical parts, servicing etc – have gone up during that time.
“Just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we were actually expecting to receive an increase, finally, but those plans were shelved for obvious reasons.
“Now, [the fare increase] would help greatly to offset some of the added costs and help us see greater returns, but it would almost be criminal for us to do that to our passengers at a time like this,” one outspoken driver explained.
Another, who disclosed that he has been transporting some of his most loyal passengers for free for several months, insisted that “we have to look at it from their perspective as well”.
“Yes, [bus drivers] are having it hard, but many of us still have a job at this point, no matter how little we are earning. When you look at some of my passengers who work in the hotel industry, they are only now getting back on their feet, so how could I call for [a fare increase] right now?” he said.
Instead of raising the bus fare, at least for now, the drivers say the government should look at either repealing the fuel price hike or increasing the subsidy that they are currently getting.
“The government should be stepping onto the frontline to absorb the rising fuel costs, if not for all the motorists in Antigua, then at least for the public transport people, because we have been feeling the brunt of the pandemic for so long,” one driver remarked.
The Public Transportation Union is scheduled to meet this week to discuss the increase and the obvious impact on its members, and some of the drivers told Observer that they are waiting eagerly for a decision to be made and for the response from the government.
They insist that if that response is not favourable, they could embark on some type of protest action to express their discontent.
“I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I know that the government doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with us. It won’t be an easy decision, but we have to stand up at some point; we can’t just keep getting hit without standing up for ourselves,” one driver declared.
And in addition to the economic tension, the political tension that has been boiling ahead of the next general election appears to be seeping into the fuel situation.
A handful of drivers, when approached for their views, refused to comment on the basis of their “political affiliations”.
Taking those affiliations into account, in the context of the political “silly season”, it remains to be seen just how much support that threat of protest action will receive from the bus operators, and whether the government will take the necessary steps to avoid the possibility altogether.
What is for certain is that the impact of what is playing out all the way in Ukraine on everyday people here in Antigua and Barbuda should be high on everyone’s agenda, taking a page out of the book of these bus drivers.
Observer has reached out to the Public Transportation Union for further comment on these developments.