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That sinking feeling
The liquidation of four water taxis, bought to ply a route of convenience between Port-of-Spain and San Fernando, has left taxpayers with a hefty bill and a troubling dearth of explanation for the significant financial loss. That loss, set at $127 million, represented the difference between the purchase price and repair costs of the HC Katia, HC Olivia, HC Milancia, and MV Su, and the price they recently fetched as unusable salvage.
The Su, the most notorious of the four, never sailed the route. The 12-year-old craft, bought for $25 million, was first towed to Curaçao where it was repaired at a cost of £750,000 before it was towed to Trinidad and Tobago and placed in dock, where it has remained ever since, to undergo repairs.
In July 2009, the UK firm McAusland and Turner described the original repair evaluation as incorrect and characterised the Curaçao repair job as “mismanaged to the extent of gross incompetence.” By the time repairs on the MV Su had been stopped, with estimates of further $14 million needed to make the vessel seaworthy, repair costs had peaked at $50 million, twice what the MV Su cost. It is unclear what happened to the Katia, Olivia and Milancia, but it appears that nobody responsible for the water-taxi service has learned anything from the disastrous experience with the Su.
Despite fiery condemnation of the situation he discovered, the Minister of Works and Transport of the day, Jack Warner, never delivered a report, with declared accountabilities, about the Su and the circumstances that led to that astonishing waste of taxpayers’ money to the people who paid for it.
With the decommissioning and sale for salvage of three more vessels bought in 2007 to ply the water-taxi route, the losses continue unabated and equally unexplained. Surely the accusation by former Minister of Works and Transport Colm Imbert that the three ships were simply abandoned and left to rot demands an immediate and informative response from the sitting Minister of Transport Devant Maharaj?
These losses are being added to the bottom line of a project that itself is a lossmaking enterprise. One of the great successes of the Colm Imbert-era Works and Transport Ministry, the transportation alternative was immediately popular with the travelling public, offering a fast, scenic alternative to the traffic jams on the Solomon Hochoy Highway.
Minister of Transport Devant Maharaj recently reported that the route is heavily subsidised by the government at a rate that’s more than double the subvention allocated for each passenger travelling to Tobago by airbridge. The minister was looking to advertising on the route to boost revenue, but what really seems to be needed are more efficient vessels, and a tightly-run enterprise designed to minimise costs.
On the evidence of the flawed procurements that appear to be at the heart of the poor choices of vessels to ply the route, the whole water-taxi project, as useful and attractive as it is, seems overdue for an independent evaluation of the efficiencies of its operations.
It remains to be seen whether such a thing can happen. The political value of the errors that led to these staggering losses appears to have the ruling party slavering and a commitment to bringing fresh thinking to the water-taxi initiative is taking a back seat to political advantage.
The constant exchange of accusations in Parliament has degenerated into an absurd pickup, or rather pick-apart small-goalpost game, the issue vigorously booted back and forth across the turf of public patience. Any transaction that represents a net loss of $127 million should be fully and thoroughly accounted for and authoritatively documented for public review. Anything less is simply negligence.
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