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SINGAPORE – Only two feeder bus services were able to raise enough revenue to cover their running costs, with public transport ridership dropping last year due to Covid-19, Senior Minister of State for Transport Chee Hong Tat announced on Wednesday (Feb 24).

In 2019, only 11 out of a total of 356 bus services could produce adequate fares to cover costs, with $1 billion of government subsidies making up the difference.

In order for the Land Transport Authority to retain financial prudence and meet new demands, bus routes must be regularly checked and improvements made to those with low ridership, such as bus services running parallel to new rail lines, Mr. Chee said.

“Past experience shows that the opening of new rail lines (will) lead to significant falls in ridership of parallel bus services. If we keep the services as they are, it will mean more operating subsidies, and greater use of public funds,” he added.

This was in response to Mr. Ang Wei Neng (West Coast GRC), who questioned if, following the staged opening of the Thomson-East Coast Line, the LTA had plans to revamp bus routes. Mr Ang also wanted to know whether, when more bus services are rolled out to new housing estates such as Bidadari and Tengah, public subsidies will increase.

Mr Chee said that some bus services, while not economically viable, are nevertheless needed because they serve areas that need connectivity, despite low ridership.

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Similarly, residents must be linked to main transport nodes such as MRT stations and bus interchanges in new housing estates, he said. At the same time, though, the government cannot afford to raise the level of subsidies to cover deficits.

“If we are going to cater to new demand and yet we do not wish to take away or adjust existing bus routes, then I think… mathematically, it is clear to everybody that the total amount of public subsidies will have to go up,” Mr Chee said in response to Associate Professor Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC), who had asked if the LTA could conduct surveys and let buses continue to ply routes that are popular, especially among the elderly, at reduced frequencies.

“The concern with doing that is that, over time, it becomes financially unsustainable and we are increasing the fiscal burden for this generation and the next,” Mr Chee added.

Therefore, the government must strike a balance between the standard of service, the affordability of commuters’ fares and the financial viability of the public transport system in Singapore, he said.

“Ideally, we want to be able to do all of them but we know there are practical trade-offs.”

Singaporeans will need to get used to the fact that a combination of both bus and MRT services would provide public transport connectivity, he said.

This means ensuring that residents have ample connectivity between their homes and the MRT station, with buses increasingly concentrating on connectivity between the first and last mile.

This will complement the expanding MRT network, which will provide longer travel distances for connectivity.

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