The government will be forced to pay bus owners at least €320,000 on top of the €55 million already owed once it buys out their licences when the new transport system starts running in July.

When the deal between the government and public transport operators was brokered late in January last year, the Transport Ministry had committed to pay 10 per cent of the sum owed to them on April 1 this year, 20 per cent on January 2 next year and the remaining 70 per cent – €38.5 million – when the licences were bought out by the government.

The deal had stipulated the government would pay interest on top of the remaining balance if the licences were not bought out by March 1 next year.

When Arriva Malta had been selected as the new operator last July, the ministry had said the new system was expected to be rolled out by March. However, when Transport Minister Austin Gatt announced that negotiations with Arriva had been concluded, the start date shifted to July 3 not to disturb school transport, which so far is provided by public transport drivers. This entitles bus drivers to four months of interest at 1.5 per cent on top of the European Central Bank base interest rate, which stands at one per cent, bringing the total to 2.5 per cent, or €320,833 of public funds.

The ministry confirmed the licences would be withdrawn on July 3, when the new service is rolled out.

When talks between the government and the Public Transport Association started, the latter had asked for €92.9 million in compensation, a figure that was virtually halved by the time the talks ended.

The Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry had lashed out at this buyout, saying it was inappropriate in a time where so many businesses were facing hardships because of higher utility rates and the recession. However, bus owners are not rubbing their hands in glee.

“Were it up to us, they would just take our licences tomorrow and we could go ahead and go on with our commitments,” association president Victor Spiteri said.

He said many drivers were frustrated because they still had to spend money on maintaining their ageing vehicles, which they knew would no longer be in use in a few months’ time.

“For us, the fact the government is taking long is not good because since we’re self-employed we have to see what other work we can find and these delays are interfering with our plans,” Mr Spiteri said.

Mr Spiteri said members had only heard of the date the new service would kick in through the media adding that when he had asked the ministry he was told official notifications to bus drivers would be sent after the deal with Arriva was sealed on Saturday.

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