Route to profit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 May, 2012, 12:00am

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In March, the Planning Department amended the use of three adjacent plots of land in Tuen Mun that belong to Transport International Holdings, a subsidiary of Sun Hung Kai Properties, rezoning them from industrial to comprehensive development area.

After the rezoning, one of the plots, which are near the Tuen Mun station on the West Rail Line, could be used for residential development, providing usable floor area of up to 840,000 square feet.

These plots are currently used by the Kowloon Motor Bus Company as a depot and a maintenance and repair centre. Not all of them, though, because a property on the site, with a total gross floor area of more than 100,000 sq ft, has been leased out. The property, which belongs to TM Properties Investment, a subsidiary of Transport International, was leased out last year to earn rental income.

On the surface, it's a business decision. But the problem is that because the bus company now has a smaller depot, it's using public space to park its fleet, clogging up nearby streets. The government shouldn't turn a blind eye to this because the bus company is blatantly occupying public space and causing inconvenience to nearby residents and road users.

It has been claimed that the relevant government departments have condoned these activities and bent the rules. If true, that would be a case of collusion.

This case touches on the principle of fairness. If the Transport Department grants KMB buses this privilege, the same treatment should be extended to other providers of commercial transport. All should be allowed to park their vehicles on the roads during off-peak hours.

To be honest, it's an open secret that the government has always treated franchised bus companies favourably. They don't have to pay the franchise fees, their profits are guaranteed and they enjoy a diesel tax exemption.

Even so, bus companies are constantly demanding handouts from the government. Rising overheads and soaring oil prices are their typical excuses for raising fares. Last year, KMB raised fares by 3.6per cent and even requested the setting up of a government-backed fare stabilisation fund to buffer the impact of rising fuel prices and inflation. If this is not greed, what is it?

We have a transport subsidy scheme to help low-income workers. This is already a form of subsidy for the bus companies.

It's disappointing that their priority is to maximise profit rather than improve services.

The best way forward is for the government to own and operate the mass public transport system. Chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying should tackle high transport costs. He should review the existing transport policy and look at the option of the government owning and running the existing franchised bus companies.

Once that's achieved, the next step would be to streamline bus routes. There would be numerous benefits. First, prices would be more affordable. Second, there would be less congestion and roadside pollution, especially if more environmentally friendly buses were used. It's definitely a win-win.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk