Once in government, the currently opposition Reform Party would abolish free rides on county bus routes as a waste of money, Reform Party chairwoman Kaja Kallas told regional daily Tartu Postimees on Tuesday. Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson (Centre), however, said that her party intends to ensure that the system remains.
"This is an utterly senseless waste of money," Kallas said, commenting on the system of free rides offered on county bus routes in 11 of Estonia's 15 countries that took effect on 1 July. "When we look at surveys, the percentage of those whose worries are solved by these free rides is very small."
According to Kallas, the actual issue is that people are unable to get to their desired destinations and return home at the right times.
"Now it has gotten worse still thanks to the transport paid for by the state — you can't buy a ticket in advance and you never know whether or not there's enough space left on the bus for you," she said.
According to the Reform chairwoman, the Reform Party would discontinue the recently introduced system and give consideration to reorganising the route network instead. "There should be more sharing solutions," she commented. "Collecting information on where people are actually travelling can be done indeed."
Simson: Free transport to remain as long as Centre in power
Responding to Kallas' remarks, Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson (Centre) said on Tuesday that the Centre Party intends to see to the preservation of the free public transport system as well as develop it further.
"The first months of free public transport have proven that the cost of the ride matters very much to the people," Simson said in a press release. "In August, for example, the number of passengers increased by 33% on average. Someone who goes to work 25 km from where they live saves some €800 per year as a result. It is our goal to develop the public transport system, not make things worse and reverse initiatives. As long as the Centre Party is in power, free public transport will remain."
Tallinn mayor: Nationwide free transport success exceeds expectations
Tallinn Mayor Taavi Aas, likewise a member of the ruling Centre Party, said that the nationwide system of free public transport has proven a success beyond expectations, as passenger numbers have jumped since the introduction of free regional bus transport.
According to August figures, the number of passengers on newly free routes increased by 33% across Estonia on average, which indicates a very big demand, Aas said.
"In August, there were 71% more boardings in Ida-Viru County and 61% more boardings in Jõgeva County than a year ago — these numbers speak for themselves," Aas was quoted by spokespeople as saying. "Growth of 56% in Viljandi County and 46% in Valga County are likewise impressive. Critics of free public transport claimed that these people do not exist, but they were wrong."
According to the mayor, free public transport facilitates labour mobility and is a well targeted regional subsidy measure.
"People who travel by bus are mostly lower-paid people, the young, and the elderly," he observed. "Someone going to work in a county centre 30 km from where they live will save €700-800 per year."
According to Aas, free public transport is still in a transition phase and the real benefits will be seen when the density of the route network is increased as of the beginning of next year.
He also dismissed Kallas' criticism of free public transport as ungrounded.
"This is the talk of someone who thinks that everybody in Estonia lives like her and the people she knows," Aas said. "Thousands more people have begun using public transport, which demonstrates that it is necessary. Rural areas and small towns for years have only seen things taken away from them; it's fair to also give something back."
Editor: Aili Vahtla