11 July 2024

Anticipating challenging decisions ahead, the four candidates running in the election for governor of Bangkok are strongly opposing the extension of concession for the core Skytrain sections of the Green Line.

They were speaking on the controversial proposal in the course of a debate

The Interior Ministry and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) have proposed extending the concession of operator Bangkok Mass Transit System Plc (BTSC) for another 30 years after it expires in 2029.

Chadchart Sittipunt, Rosana Tositrakul, Suchatvee Suwansawat, and Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, contesting for the top BMA job, proposed their ideas at an online debate hosted by the Thailand Consumers Council on February 14.

The BMA, and the Interior Ministry which supervises the city administration, are proposing an extension of the concession for rail sections Mo Chit – On Nut, and National Stadium – Taksin Bridge, but the Transport Ministry under coalition partner Bhumjaithai Party is opposing the move.

The proposed cap of the maximum fare at Bt65 per trip, up from the current Bt59, was criticized by the four candidates as too expensive.

The four candidates also opposed transferring the cost of construction of the Green Line extensions – Bearing – Kheha and Mo Chit – Khu Khot stations – from the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA) to the BMA.

While the four candidates shared common ground on some key issues, they proposed different solutions.

Green Line under MRTA

Independent candidate Rosana said the government must not extend concessions to the private sector. She said the reason for the concession extension was the BMA’s inability to service its debts – over Bt30 billion owed to BTSC for train operations on the extensions and Bt70 billion construction cost owed to the MRTA.

The debts, combined with the mandatory sharing of Bt200 billion revenue from the operations with the BMA, has translated into a high fare of Bt65, a burden on commuters for another 30 years, she said.

“If I become the governor of Bangkok, I will transfer the Green Line to the central government via the MRTA. This will help the central government take control of all train lines and create a common ticket system or a single ticket system,” said Rosana.

The Green line should be integrated into a train network of 10 routes, most of them run by the MRTA. The government, using tax money, has invested Bt1 trillion, so it is unfair to inflict commuters with the burden of high fares, she said.

Rosana said that with seamless connectivity of train lines, the entrance fee must be paid only once, so the maximum fare could be capped at Bt40-45 for all networks. The cheaper fares will increase the number of people using the train system from an estimated 1.2 million people a day at present to 3-5 million people in the future, leading to a sustainable solution to traffic problems.

She proposed three conditions:

First, the Transport Ministry must not offer a concession under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model on the western section of the Orange Line to private companies. The MRTA should completely own the train networks, which will allow the MRTA to set affordable fares, she said.

Second, a representative of the BMA should be a part of the MRTA board so that the BMA could have a say in setting the fare, hiring firms to operate the train service, and maintaining them.

Third, the MRTA should collect fares on the Green Line extension – Bearing to Kheha, and Mo Chit to Khu Khot stations – at Bt10 each way, from now until 2029. Currently, it is free of charge. The MRTA should raise revenue from advertising and renting space at train stations, she suggested.

More transparency

Chadchart, also an independent candidate, shared Rosana’s views about the BMA returning ownership of the Green Line to the central government. He said the BMA should not bear the burden of the construction cost of the Green Line extension because the government in the past was also responsible for the construction costs of civil works of other train lines.

Next, the BMA has to expedite negotiations with the BTSC to tackle the debt accumulated from installing the train system and its operations.

The BMA must start collecting fares for the north and south extension sections. The train has been running for three years, but so far there has been no clarity about fare collection on these sections.

Conditions in the train operating contract until 2042 between BMA and BTSC must be disclosed so that the public will know the real cost. This will lead to an accurate calculation of fare after the expiry of the BTS concession in 2029, he said.

All sections of the Green Line must be used to generate income, such as advertising revenue, so the fare on the Green Line could be set at Bt25-30 per trip in the future, he added.

Is a cheaper fare the solution to Bangkok’s Green Line standoff?

BMA must be in charge

Wiroj, a candidate from the Move Forward Party, said he did not agree with Rosana’s proposal for the BMA to transfer ownership of the Green Line to the MRTA. He cited the bad experience of transferring public bus service to the Transport Ministry, resulting in poor service and the BMA being stuck with it.

Wiroj did not agree with the concession extension because it did not mention a common fare scheme. He demanded that the proposals be made public.

The BMA should not shoulder the cost of construction and added that if he were the governor, a Bt20-25 Skytrain fare could become a reality. Bus service should be upgraded and it should transport commuters to train stations.

He also pledged to review land and building tax rates to increase the BMA’s revenue.

Issue bonds to repay debt 

Suchatvee, the Democrat Party candidate, agreed with Wiroj that BMA should remain in charge of the Green Line, while the MRTA should bear the cost of construction. Investment in mass transit infrastructure is for the welfare of the people, he said.

He suggested the BMA issue infrastructure bonds to raise funds for repaying the Bt30 billion owed to the BTSC. The fare should be capped at no more than 20 percent of the daily minimum wage so that everyone can use the mass transit services, he said.

Many challenges for next governor

After hearing the four candidates suggest the central government bear the construction cost, Sumet Ongkittikul, research director at the Thailand Development Research Institute, said that the government also has a tight budget.

It is not much different whether the BMA, or the government via the MRTA, is in charge of the Green Line. They could work together in the people’s interest, he said.

If the BMA pushes the Bt65-billion construction debt back to the MRTA, it may not be fair to people in other provinces. The BMA and other types of local governments have received annual budget subsidies from the central government under the fiscal decentralization law, Sumet pointed out.

Regarding the PPP scheme, it is necessary because the Finance Ministry wants private companies to share investment costs to reduce pressure on the government budget, said Sumet. The MRTA has already implemented a PPP scheme for the Blue, Purple, Pink and Yellow lines, and the eastern section of the Orange Line.

Responding to the idea of raising funds through the issue of bonds, Sumet doubted the BMA’s ability to raise large amounts via debt instruments.

Sumet, however, agreed with the call for more transparency in train operations and the maintenance contract between the BMA and BTSC, as well as details of the concession extension proposal.

By Thai PBS World’s Business Desk