Legco motion on bus fares is just hot air in election season

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am

'The motion, to be moved by Hon Lee Wing-tat, states: 'That, as a franchised bus operator has recently applied to the Transport Department for a substantial fare increase of 9%, which is far beyond public affordability, this council urges the Government to reject the application and adopt measures, including:

(a) in applying the Modified Basket of Factors approach, taking the outcome of the fare adjustment formula and public affordability as primary factors for consideration, while other factors should be supplementary and secondary ones ... '

Legco news release, October 15

It's Sod's Law in operation. Here I was in this column yesterday making the do-gooder case for how democracy will always give you the best result and meanwhile the head of the Democratic Party was doing his best to prove me wrong.

Now don't misunderstand me. There is no love lost here for Kowloon Motor Bus. It is responsible for inflicting on bus passengers that utter abomination, Roadshow. May the fleas of a thousand camels inhabit the armpits of its directors for that crime alone.

But when it tells us that rising fuel prices, rising interest rates, increases in toll charges and loss of patronage to the urban railways are squeezing profits on its bus operations, I am inclined to believe that it is telling us the truth.

In past times this would have led relatively smoothly to a compensating increase in fares. A fare adjustment mechanism took care of it.

But civil servants don't like the idea of an adjustment mechanism. It leaves no role for them. Ours therefore decided to abandon mechanisms in regulating bus fares and adopt what they called the Modified Basket of Factors approach.

I have never yet heard what factors went into this basket and in what proportion or how they are modified but I don't really need to hear. The truth of it is that both factors and modification essentially come down to whether the civil servant who rules on them got out of the right side of bed that morning and whether he had a good breakfast. That's what happens when you substitute subjective judgment for objective fact.

But Mr Lee can find nothing objectionable in this. Try asking him, when he says that a 9 per cent fare increase 'is far beyond public affordability', what his calculations show to be within public affordability. How is his index of public affordability constructed? What factors does he use and in what weightings?

I guarantee you it is as pointless as asking the civil servant this question. There is nothing there, just a lot of empty talk. It's aimed at getting votes from the public housing tenants' lobby, just as the civil servant's is directed principally to restraining unrest in the same group of people.

The only difference is that Mr Lee does not even want to retain the appearance of a mechanism. Fares should be determined on the basis of the 'fare adjustment formula', which means nothing because there is no rigorous formula, and on 'public affordability', which means nothing because it's a buzzword and no one can put hard numbers into it.

He doesn't stop there, by the way. Also on the wish list of his Legco motion are free ride days for the elderly on Sundays and holidays and 50 per cent fare discounts for disabled people to promote the 'participation of the socially disadvantaged in the community', as if this were a private bus company's responsibility.

Mr Lee, we would all like this and more. We all wish that all of us, not only the elderly, could get free ride days and, in fact, we wish that we could get them every day of the week. We should also give disabled people special ramps at every bus stop and on-board lifts with every bus to carry them to the top deck.

But who is going to pay for it? Would you Democrats, please, for once, grow up and get it into your heads that you are no longer just making noise on campus and that money does not grow on trees?

If you don't pay for your bus ride with your bus fare then you won't have a bus service unless every item on your wish list is backed up with a specific subsidy provision from public funds. Go on. Let's see you do it.