Benn quizzed on $500M fuel budget for ferries

Transport Minister Robeson Benn was yesterday faced a parliamentary interrogation over a $500 million budgetary allocation made this year to offset fuel costs for the Transport and Harbours Department (T&HD).

In the past two years, sums of $50 million each were allocated to the sector and AFC MP Khemraj Ramjattan queried whether the high rise in the allocation this year was to cover the cost for the operation of the two Chinese roll-on/roll-off vessels.

Benn, during the consideration of the budget estimates in the National Assembly, stated that this year, amounts of $125 million each had been set aside for fuel to cover the operations of the two vessels.

APNU MP Volda Lawrence, while questioning the allocation, asked how many vessels the $500 million catered for and Benn replied that some eight vessels were being considered.

In an attempt to justify the sum, he said that as the vessels operated by the T&HD age, they utilise more fuel. He added that the ministry does not intend to utilise the vessels continually. He said the operations of the vessels remain the same, adding that the $500 million was not budgeted mainly for the two Chinese ferries.

Benn stated that there had been longer travel time for the fleet of vessels since they were moved to the Essequibo from the Berbice area. He said too that  there were cross subsidies from the Maritime Administration Department (MARAD) to the T&HD and this made it necessary for the funding to be taken over from the central government.

Meantime, the two North West ferries, the MV Kimbia and the MV Lady Northcote are expected to be dry-docked later this year. The MV Barima will ply the two routes while the two vessels are being repaired. Benn told the National Assembly that the two vessels will be docked during the second half of the year; the Lady Northcote will be docked some time after November.

The two aged ferries have been on the waters for decades and residents of Region One have been calling on the authorities to deliver promises made by the administration when it assumed office in 1992, to replace the vessels.

The MV Lady Northcote, which travels fortnightly between Georgetown and Port  Kaituma, was recently repaired and returned to the high seas after a fire on board created panic among passengers. The vessel was at the time on the last leg of its trip to the city and passengers immediately  refreshed calls for the vessel to be replaced.

Several days later, the MV Kimbia broke down at the mouth of the Demerara River while on its way to the Kumaka area in the Mabaruma Sub-Region. The vessel suffered a mechanical breakdown as one of its generators which powers the ship malfunctioned.

There are also reports that the emergency engine on the vessel has been out of order for years and a source close to the T&HD told Stabroek News last month that only one of the two engines on board the vessel has been functioning to its full capacity over the past several months.

“The crew got to work overtime to coax the vessel along and that is why now the boat takes so long. Ideally it should take 18 to 19 hours but now it takes sometimes 36 hours and therefore burns like an extra 400 gallons of fuel,” the senior former maritime official said.

The vessel has experienced mechanical breakdowns on several occasions in recent times; it was forced to limp to and from the city on one engine on several occasions in recent years.

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