Although Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson (Center) has every legal right to introduce free rides on county bus lines beginning July 1 next year, no such political agreement has been reached among government parties, Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder told daily Postimees.
"The Center Party has been trying to convince the government to move toward it, but the government has not approved it — on the contrary, IRL has been against free public transport," Seeder said.
Postimees reported in its Thursday edition that Simson wishes to implement the pre-election promise of the Center Party to offer free rides on government-subsidized county bus routes beginning July 1, which among other things would lead to a situation in which rides are free on a few dozen long-distance bus routes as well.
"If this is a sensible and good thing to do in some counties, it can be done," Seeder commented. "But we don't support an obligation to provide free public transport being imposed nationwide by a minister or the government by law."
The chairman of the smallest of the three ruling coalition parties said that the article of the coalition agreement addressing the matter says that the organization of public transport in counties will be handed over to local public transport centers or municipalities complete with subsidies and additional funding.
"It should remain up to them to decide what they do with the money meant to be used for public transport," Seeder said.
He also added that free public transport within counties and in a few tens of inter-county bus services may make a mess of the overall organization of public transport in Estonia.
"What motivation will people have to travel to Keila by train for money when there's a free bus?" Seeder commented. "Then people will start going there by bus and we must increase the number of buses."
How the present situation was arrived at looks more than odd in hindsight, Postimees said. Several politicians who were close to the negotiations on the coalition agreement told the paper that there had been no talk of public transport at the coaltion negotiations in the form now being pursued by Simson. A closer look at the documents reveals that already a month after the agreement was signed, at the end of December 2016, a provision was written into the government's action plan calling to implement a project for free rides on county bus lines and installation of validators in buses by July 1, 2018.
With the fiscal strategy endorsed in April, Simson was granted €13 million for that purpose next year, and as much as €21 million in the following years.
It appears even more odd, the daily found, that as recently as this September, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, chairman of the Center Party, upheld a position similar to Seeder's when speaking on a Vikerraadio broadcast, where he specifically said that ticket prices should be decided about by the municipalities.
"During the discussion of the fiscal strategy, it was said that this is the amount of money that will go there, but no details were discussed," said Social Democratic Party (SDE) parliamentary grup chairman Kalvi Kõva.
Kõva said that Simson is to present her plan to the SDE group next Thursday. "If we don't like it, we will tell her so," the MP added.
Editor: Aili Vahtla