The BMA is planning to impose a maximum price of 59 baht on BTS extensions. Scrutinised by stakeholders, the proposal has given rise to a high profile debate. The fare issue is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Much deeper problems remain to be addressed.
On 29 June, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) under governor Chadchart Sittipunt announced plans to cap BTS Green Line extension fares to 59 baht. The policy is in keeping with a Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) recommendation.
The price would apply to the Bearing- Kheha and Mochit-Khu Khot extensions, comprising a total of 25 stations across 3 provinces. After opening on 16 December 2020, the lines were part of a free ride program, a scheme that was extended indefinitely by the BMA on 2 January 2021. To date, the BMA - or rather the taxpayers - have been responsible for shouldering the costs.
Saree Aongsomwang, secretary-general of the Thailand Consumer Council (TCC), is critical of the policy. The TCC urges the BMA to lower fares, asserting that ticket prices should not exceed 44 baht as stipulated in the 30-year contract with Bangkok Mass Transit System Plc (BTSC) that runs until 2029. They note that at the rate proposed by the BMA, the cost of a round trip commute would be 118 baht, 36% of the daily minimum wage of 331 baht.
Siripong Angkasakulkiat, a Bhumjaithai party MP from Sisaket, also expressed opposition to the move, calling on Chadchart to keep his campaign promise of lowering the fare to 25-30 baht.
Chadchart defended the proposal as a short-term solution that can be modified later, after the BTSC concession expires and line ownership is transferred to the BMA.
On the surface, the debate is about fare prices but at its core are some complicated concessions and unclear contracts. To date, no cost assessment of Green Line fares has been made available to the public.
Green Line concessions involve a tangled web of mysterious contracts, massive debt and little public transparency.
People wait for a BTS train's arrival on its platform. (File photo)
The sky train system consists of three parts. The first runs from Mo Chit to On Nut and from the National Stadium to Wongwian Yai. It was funded by the BTSC under a Build, Operate, and Transfer (BOT) contract in which the BTSC was allowed to operate the system for 30 years and keep all revenue, before transferring ownership to the BMA.
The second part extends from On Nut to Bearing and from Wongwian Yai to Bang Wa. Former Bangkok governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra signed the contract for BTSC to operate these extensions for 30 years, from 2012 to 2042. In contrast to the first segment, BTSC provides revenue to the BMA.
The third component, source of the 59 baht debate, extends existing lines out to Khu Khot and Kheha. Funded by the Mass Rapid Transit Authority (MRTA), the project was initially outside the jurisdiction of the BMA, but the cabinet later intervened, granting Bangkok operational control. Free from inception, it is now the target of Chadchart 59 baht ceiling, adding a 15 baht surcharge on the contractually-stipulated 44 baht ride fee,
The BMA does not directly manage the concession. This responsibility is delegated to the Krungthep Thanakom Company, a private firm that has the BMA as a majority partner. Chadchart met with company executives twice this past month to discuss this issue.
Krungthep Thanakom has just experienced a major reshuffle and resignation of staff. Currently managed by Prof Tongthong Chandransu, its contract relations with the BMA remain unclear.
In a meeting with Chadchart and KT board members on 2 July, Prof Thongtong stated that their contract has a non-disclosure agreement. As KT’s main shareholder, BMA can ask KT for performance information and but is constrained by legal provisions from publishing information.
During the meeting, Chadchart stressed the importance of shedding light on the contract, given that taxpayers must shoulder whatever costs it involves.
The costs are seemingly high. The BMA is more than 100 billion baht in debt from its investment in Green Line extensions, and for paying MRTA transfer and BTSC operations fees.
The junta’s involvement in the Green Line issue dates to 11 April 2019, when it invoked Section 44 of the interim constitution, directing Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paochinda to form a committee and draft a new contract.
The proposal would have extended the concession for another 30 years, relieving the BMA of its Green Line debt and interest, while raising fares to a maximum of 65 baht. For this reason, it was is dubbed a ‘concession-debt swap.’
The 65 baht fare hike, and the committee’s failure to follow due process under the Public-Private Partnership Act B.E. 2562 (PPP Act), raised questions about project transparency. Eventually, the issue was tabled during a 2021 no-confidence motion by Pheu Thai Party MP, Yutthapong Charassathien. He also asked the National Anti-corruption Commission (NACC) to examine the proposal along with the contract extension made under Governor Sukhumphan.
Ultimately it failed to receive Cabinet approval. It was boycotted on 2 February 2022 by Bhumjaithai Party, which had 7 ministerial seats including the ministry of transport. They cited their concern over the 65 baht fare, the potential legal conflict stemming from multiple contracts, and the governance issue, as the PPP Act was not brought into consideration.
As the public has yet to see either contract, the price argument remains a no-rule match, with different sides drawing their lines in the sand.