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Saturday, April 19, 2014

US-funded bus system in the works

Thomas J. Camacho, the governor’s special assistant for public transportation, says in an interview yesterday on Capital Hill that his office has been working on a proposal for an “expanded” public bus system on Saipan. (Haidee V. Eugenio) Saipan may soon have a federally-funded public transportation system that will initially include two 15- to 20-passenger buses on a flexible-route system as early as next year, to be operated by a private company under contract with the Commonwealth Transit Authority, or COTA. Members of the House Public Utilities, Transportation and Communications Committee separately said yesterday they welcome such undertaking but it has to be carefully studied.

The cost to residents and tourists could be $1.50 to $2 per segment or from point A to point B, depending on the results of an ongoing review.

This is expected to be lower than the current rate of about $6 paid by people with disabilities and man’amko availing of the now-temporarily suspended Call-A-Ride.

Thomas J. Camacho, the governor’s special assistant for public transportation, said yesterday that his office has been working on this proposal for an “expanded” transportation service, in addition to the para-transit system commonly known as the Saipan Call-A-Ride transportation service for people with disabilities and the elderly or man’amko.

Camacho, who also chairs the COTA advisory board, said when COTA submits its budget to the Federal Transit Authority for the Saipan Call-A-Ride, it will also include a proposal to expand the current specialized services to the public that has no means to go from one place to another.

But Rep. Stanley Torres (Ind-Saipan), chairman of the House PUTC Committee, said this should be “carefully studied” to avoid having the CNMI government subsidizing the public bus system if the federal government stops paying for the operations and maintenance after the second or third year. He supports providing an affordable public transportation to the public.

“Considering our own financial constraint, we don’t want the local government paying for it in the end. Would the federal government also pay for the maintenance, the bus drivers, the gas? It has to be carefully studied and considered,” Torres told Saipan Tribune.

Rep. Frank Dela Cruz (R-Saipan), a member of the House PUTC panel, said a public transpiration system would alleviate the continued increase in the cost of gasoline. He also said there are still many people who do not have their own transportation.

“This will assist them. This is also a result of a bill introduced by Rep. Ray Yumul and I am glad this is moving forward and Mr. Tom Camacho is on top of this,” he said. Dela Cruz is also chairman of the Public Infrastructure Committee of the Saipan and Northern Islands Legislative Delegation.

Camacho said the FTA will fund the purchase of the buses for COTA, along with funding for its operations and maintenance. COTA will bid out the actual operations of the buses to private companies.

“We are not going to operate it directly because we don’t want to do that. We’re going to monitor and maintain ensuring the service is provided out there by a private company. We’re going to bid them out,” he said in an interview yesterday on Capital Hill.

He said the plan is also to “take over the current Saipan Call-a-Ride and expand that by adding two mini-buses that would go around the island [in] a flex-route system, not a fixed route,” which goes by fixed time and stops.

Under the flex route system, the buses could pick up and drop off passengers in areas where there are essential or critical government or public services such as the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., Northern Marianas College, Northern Marianas Housing Corp., or government offices on Capital Hill, as well as major spots for shopping and recreation such as parks. But Camacho said if somebody needs to be picked up from Kagman, for example, the bus may also go to Kagman and then back to the normal route.

“That can deviate, that can go into the village, and then go back to its regular routine, and continue on. We may allow people to just maybe wave the bus down to be picked up along the route and or be dropped off, not necessarily on designated areas. It gives that flexibility,” Camacho said.

He said there is going to be a lot of planning involved. They also want to make sure the plan complies with local and federal requirements such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Camacho said in the fiscal year 2013 cycle, COTA would want to expand the service to Rota and Tinian by buying additional vans.

Besides providing public transportation, the project would also spur economic activities and provide jobs to drivers, dispatchers, maintenance staff and mechanics, among other things.

COTA is also awaiting the results of a study on the feasibility of having an interisland ferry.

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