Politicians have increasingly pointed to the need to abolish free public transport during coalition talks. Officials and carriers say that ticket revenue is so modest it would hardly yield major saving, while it could be enough to keep public transport going.
The last time all county bus lines required passengers to buy a ticket was six years ago, with proceeds from ticket sales totaling €11 million. Estonia had to add €20 million in subsidies to keep buses going. The latter had grown to €63 million in 2022 and promises to grow further this year.
Andres Ruubas, head of the public transport department of the Transport Administration, said that €75 million will be needed for county public transport subsidies this year for a share in Estonia's fiscal deficit of €17 million.
There is not enough money to keep subsidizing public transport in recent volume, with politicians increasingly pointing to the need to abolish the benefit. In four counties, only children and the elderly can ride the bus for free, and while these include Estonia's largest Harju County, ticket revenue still only amounted to €3 million last year.
Ruubas said that just as the state had to subsidize public transport before it was made free of charge, the need would be retained upon returning to ticket-based transport as market failures would see some areas lose all public transport service otherwise.
He suggested that it is too soon to say how the subsidy sums would change were tickets reintroduced. Head of coach operator GoBus Andrei Mändla said that even if every passenger had to buy a ticket, revenue would still not exceed €10 million. Maintaining the existing lines network costs €75 million, while more would be needed to improve it.
Carriers' and transport associations have proposed a system where people could either buy a €10 monthly ticket, a cheap single ticket using the Public Transport Card (Ühiskaart) or a more expensive single ticket for cash.
Andrus Kärpuk, head of the Pärnu County Public Transport Center, said that the debate should be over fair ticket prices instead of free transport.
"A fair ticket price would see a person who has to commute to work buy a ticket which costs the same no matter how far they ride. It means that people who must travel a longer distance to get to work would pay the same as those living nearby," Kärpuk suggested.
He added that while revenue from ticket sales might seem modest, it is enough to pay bus drivers the average salary in Pärnu County and pay for on-demand transport.
"All local governments should ask themselves whether collecting the money and using it to improve local public transport could be a better idea than simply offering free rides," he remarked.
Right now, public transport centers that sell tickets receive that much less subsidy from the government, which the Transport Administration admits is not a fair solution in the conditions of shortage of funding.
"County public transport passenger figures have bounced back to pre-Covid levels this year and last, while growth has been 20 percent on year," Andres Ruubas said.
City public transport and ferry passenger volumes have not reached the pre-crisis level yet.
Editor: Marcus Turovski