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Introduction of free public transport in counties riddled with problems

Buses in Tartu.
Buses in Tartu. Source: (Eesti Meedia/Scanpix)

With the date set for the introduction of free public transport across Estonia just four months away, it is far from clear where and how exactly the new approach will be put into practice. There are plenty of complaints, with some local transport centers not backing the government's scheme at this point.

ERR's radio news reported on Tuesday that though according to the government's plans free public transport is to be introduced across counties starting July 1 this year, neither local transport centers nor bus line operators really know how the scheme will be implemented.

When the Road Administration introduced its implementation plans last week, things became even more confusing, as one of the issues addressed only superficially was that tickets might still be needed for some lines. This concerns the bus connections between local centers, e.g. from one county center to another.

In other words, though residents of Rapla County may enjoy free public transport within their county, they might still have to buy a ticket if they want to catch a bus to Paide in Järva County.

These inter-county lines would remain unchanged, which means though the state would continue to subsidize them, it would do so only partially. At the moment there are 25 of these, some of which connect more remote areas with the closest bigger city, e.g. the Valga-Tõrva-Tartu and Tõrva-Valga-Võru lines.

According to Liia Rätsep, director of Valga County's public transport center, this announcement came as quite the shock. "These lines were created to replace the closed commercial lines. And they function as county buses along the regional border," Rätsep said.

Risk of county residents' unfair treatment is real

The partially subsidized inter-county lines as they exist today were introduced to make transport more efficient and accessible. Where previously commercially operated buses drove past smaller stops, the partially subsidized lines combine center-to-center bus connections with local transport.

Rätsep also added that this isn't quite it yet: "The Tõrva-Valga-Võru line functions as a local bus line both in Valga County and Võru County. The line to Võru is also a school bus line to Hargla Basic School," she said, adding that excluding the whole line from the free public transport scheme would amount to unfair treatment.

The issue is complicated by the fact that residents of some counties are forced to cross into another for basic public services that the state moved out of their area.

If the state moves services out of a county, it shouldn't make people pay to reach them later on, Rätsep argued. "To us it seems like nobody cares about the problems of remote communities, there's the feeling that Estonia has been divided in two. There's Harju County (surrounding Tallinn; ed.), and then there's everyone else." This leaves the impression that the problems of the "upper half" were treated with higher priority, Rätsep said.

Harju County no happier about changes than Valga

This doesn't mean that Harju County's transport center is any happier with the Road Administration's plans, though they see different problems. According to its director, Terje Villem, their subsidized lines are very popular and currently see a 10-percent increase in passenger numbers every year.

"On some lines the buses are crammed already, but the Estonian public tender law doesn't allow us to quickly deal with the issue. What was allowed, namely to increase volumes by 20 percent, is already reached. And that means that we have to run additional tenders already now," Villem said.

Villem expects passenger volumes to increase by some 40 percent if tickets are abolished altogether and transport becomes free. The current scheme couldn't handle such numbers, and new extended tenders are needed, she added.

"It's really too late now. We would have needed these tenders announced about a year ago, so that operators have half a year to prepare. I think we're headed for a pretty big crisis in Harju County, buses will be so full that people can't get on them anymore," Villem said.

According to her, nobody asked the Harju County transport center for comment on the planned changes. And where the government insists on making public transport free of charge, Villem would rather work to increase service quality, improve timetables, and fix gaps in the current network.

Coalition MP says agreement stands, details remain unclear

This brings us back to the issue of those county centers that don't support the free public transport scheme. Politicians have suggested that those who don't back the scheme could simply be left with less state money. Like everyone they would receive a subsidy to run and build a network of bus lines, but they wouldn't have access to any of the funding allocated for free public transport.

The coalition parties have struggled with the issue, though according to MP Andres Metsoja (IRL), they have now come to an agreement according to which state funds will be distributed evenly in any case. "If centers decide that the ticket price still won't be zero, then the ministry will of course look into it. There can't be such a dogma or right to decide top-down that it has to be zero in any case," Metsoja said.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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