Anticipating tough decisions to come, the four candidates vying for Bangkok governorship strongly oppose the extension of the concession for the main sections of the Green Line Skytrain.
They were talking about the controversial proposal during a debate
The Ministry of Interior and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) have proposed to extend operator Bangkok Mass Transit System Plc’s (BTSC) concession for 30 years after it expires in 2029.
Chadchart Sittipunt, Rosana Tositrakul, Suchatvee Suwansawat and Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, vying for the top BMA job, pitched their ideas in an online debate hosted by the Consumer Council of Thailand on Feb. 14.
The BMA and the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the city administration, are proposing an extension of the concession for the Mo Chit – On Nut and National Stadium – Taksin Bridge railway sections, but the Ministry of Transport, under of the Bhumjaithai party, a coalition partner, opposes it.
The proposed cap of the maximum fare at 65 Bt per trip, against the current 59 Bt, was criticized by the four candidates as being too expensive.
The four candidates also opposed the transfer of the construction cost of the Green Line extensions – Bearing – Kheha and Mo Chit – Khu Khot stations – from the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA) to the BMA.
While the four candidates shared common ground on some key issues, they offered different solutions.
Green line under MRTA
Independent candidate Rosana said the government should not give concessions to the private sector. She said the reason for the extension of the concession was the BMA’s inability to repay its debts – more than 30 billion baht owed to BTSC for rail operations on the extensions and 70 billion baht for the cost of construction due to MRTA.
The debts, combined with mandatory Bt 200 billion revenue sharing from operations with the BMA, resulted in a high fare of Bt 65, a burden on commuters for another 30 years, she said.
“If I become governor of Bangkok, I will transfer the Green Line to the central government via the MRTA. This will help the central government take control of all train lines and create a common ticketing system or a single ticketing system,” Rosana said.
The green line should be integrated into a rail network of 10 lines, most managed by the MRTA. The government, using tax money, has invested 1 trillion baht, so it is unfair to burden commuters with high fares, she said.
Rosana said that with seamless train line connectivity, the entry fee only needs to be paid once, so the maximum fare could be capped at 40-45 Bt for all networks. The cheaper fares will increase the number of people using the rail system from about 1.2 million people per day currently to 3-5 million people in the future, leading to a lasting solution to traffic problems.
She proposed three conditions:
First, the Ministry of Transport must not offer a concession under the public-private partnership (PPP) model on the western section of the Orange Line to private companies. The MRTA should have full ownership of the rail networks, which will allow the MRTA to set affordable fares, she said.
Second, a BMA representative should be on the MRTA board so that the BMA can have a say in setting fares, hiring companies to operate the rail service and maintaining them.
Third, the MRTA should collect fares on the extension of the Green Line – Bearing to Kheha and Mo Chit to Khu Khot stations – at Bt10 each way, by 2029. Currently, it’s free. The MRTA should generate revenue through advertising and space rental at stations, she suggested.
Chadchart, also an independent candidate, shared Rosana’s views on the BMA returning ownership of the Green Line to central government. He said the BMA should not bear the burden of the construction cost of the Green Line extension as the government has in the past also been responsible for the construction costs of the civil works of other train lines.
Next, the BMA must speed up negotiations with the BTSC to deal with the debt accumulated during the installation of the railway system and its operations.
The BMA is to start collecting fares for the northern and southern extension sections. The train has been running for three years, but so far there has been no clarity on the collection of fares on these sections.
The terms of the train operating contract until 2042 between BMA and BTSC must be disclosed so that the public knows the true cost. This will lead to an accurate tariff calculation after the BTS concession expires in 2029, he said.
All sections of the Green Line must be used to generate revenue, such as advertising revenue, so the fare on the Green Line could be set at 25-30 Bt per trip in the future, he said. added.
Is a cheaper fare the solution to Bangkok’s green line stalemate?
BMA must be responsible
Wiroj, a candidate for the Going Ahead party, said he disagreed with Rosana’s proposal for the BMA to transfer ownership of the Green Line to the MRTA. He cited the bad experience of transferring the public bus service to the Department of Transport which resulted in poor service and the BMA got stuck.
Wiroj disagreed with the extension of the concession because it did not mention a common tariff system. He demanded that the proposals be made public.
The BMA is not expected to bear the cost of construction and added that if he were the governor a Bt20-25 Skytrain fare could become a reality. The bus service should be improved and it should transport commuters to stations.
He also pledged to review land and building tax rates to increase BMA revenue.
Issue bonds to repay debt
Suchatvee, the Democratic Party candidate, agreed with Wiroj that BMA should remain in charge of the Green Line, while the MRTA should bear the cost of construction. Investment in public transport infrastructure is for the well-being of the people, he said.
He suggested that the BMA issue infrastructure bonds to raise funds to repay the 30 billion Bt owed to the BTSC. The fare should be capped at no more than 20% of the daily minimum wage so that everyone can use public transport services, he said.
Many challenges for the next governor
After hearing the four candidates suggest the central government bear the construction costs, Sumet Ongkittikul, research director at the Thai Development Research Institute, said the government was also on a tight budget.
It is not much different if the BMA, or the government via the MRTA, is in charge of the Green Line. They could work together for the benefit of the people, he said.
If the BMA pushes the construction debt of 65 billion baht to the MRTA, it may not be fair to people in other provinces. The BMA and other types of local governments received annual budgetary grants from the central government under the fiscal decentralization law, Sumet pointed out.
Regarding the PPP scheme, it is necessary because the Ministry of Finance wants private companies to share investment costs to reduce the pressure on the state budget, Sumet said. The MRTA has already implemented a PPP scheme for the blue, purple, pink and yellow lines, and the eastern section of the orange line.
Reacting to the idea of raising funds through the issuance of bonds, Sumet doubted the ability of the BMA to raise large sums through debt securities.
Sumet, however, accepted the call for more transparency in train operation and the maintenance contract between the BMA and BTSC, as well as the details of the proposed concession extension.
By Thai PBS World’s Business Desk