County bus lines face a €20 million funding shortfall this year and the minister of rural affairs has been trying to find a solution. Regional transport centers believe abolishing the free service in rural areas would not help.
Almost 60 million has been earmarked for the operating costs of county bus lines in this year's budget and it was clear in the spring that this was not enough.
While fuel prices have not risen as much as feared in recent months, extra money still needs to be found.
"The latest information is that there is a shortfall of somewhere between €17 and €19 million, which the government has already dealt with, and from July 1 we will have to deal with even more vigorously," said Minister of Regional Affairs Madis Kallas (SDE).
From July, the ministry will take over the organization of county public transport.
Kallas said it has already been agreed that the money will be found to cover existing obligations and no fees will be introduced this year.
"According to our calculations, this will take at least four months. So we are talking about the last months of this year, but it will be easier for everyone if it happens at the beginning next year," Kallas said.
It is estimated costs will rise further next year to between €90-100 million, the total depends on wage increases and fuel prices.
The Ida-Viru County Public Transport Center said scrapping free public transport will not solve the problem because the government still wants to waive fees for children and pensioners. These groups make up two-thirds of all of its passengers.
"In the urban area of Harju County - Tallinn, the suburban area of Maardu - there are a higher proportion of commuters, but there are certainly more commuters in rural areas. This means that the share of ticket revenue would be several times lower than what would be needed to cover the expansion of the service," said the Ida-Viru County Public Transport Center board member Heiki Luts
Luts said the bus network in Ida-Viru County need to be increased by between 15-19 percent. But buses have always been busy and even overcrowded in urban areas.
"When we did the procurement three years ago, we didn't foresee that we would actually have to order more of the big, 15-meter, 100-seater [buses]," he said.
People that travel by bus in the county want free rural public transport to remain because they take home small salaries and their jobs are far away.
"We live in Sinimäe and we don't even have a shop and we have to go to the town to the shop for sugar, matches. We would have to drive all the time. It's very expensive for us," said Olga.
Free public transport in rural areas was introduced by Jüri Ratas during his first term as prime minister approximately five years ago. The Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition is now mulling the abolishment of the policy.
Editor: Marko Tooming, Helen Wright