Daft policy on tunnels takes its toll

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 September, 1997, 12:00am

What must all those liberal bankers with their free-marketeering principles and admiration for socialism with Chinese characteristics have thought as they inspected their newspapers on Wednesday morning? There on the front page, as if it were the most normal topic for discussion in this laissez-faire economy, was an arcane debate about whether taxi drivers should be given more money for not using the Western Harbour Tunnel than for not using the Eastern Harbour Tunnel - and whether not doing so would or would not increase congestion at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel.

Any one of the thousands of bankers, economists, finance ministers, business writers and other hangers-on bingeing away at the Convention Centre at the Hong Kong taxpayers' expense would immediately have recognised a market-distorting mechanism at work.

No doubt some of the Asian delegates would have made the connection with the stability and prosperity of the Hong Kong economy and seized on the tunnel-toll system as evidence that government economic control works. Another Asian Value proves its worth! But the rest of the guests would have drawn the opposite conclusion.

At the moment, the situation is patently daft.

The Western Harbour Tunnel costs $30 to use. The Eastern Harbour Tunnel costs $10 but is about to go up to $15; and the old Cross-Harbour tunnel, with its perpetual traffic jams and lung-pickling smog, is to remain at $10 for the foreseeable future. Guess which tunnel is empty most of the day.

Better still, taxi drivers are not allowed to charge passengers double tolls, but are only permitted to add a return fee of $10 no matter which tunnel they pass through on the outward journey. Guess which tunnels they head for on their way home.

No prizes for getting both answers right.

Now guess what the Government is doing to rectify the situation. That's right. It's allowing drivers to charge $15 instead of $10 for the return toll if they use the Eastern or Western tunnels. Guess which two tunnels taxi drivers will not be using on their way home.

Nothing like a notional $5 profit to justify that long, pointless fuel-guzzling wait in the queue for the central crossing.

You'd have thought drivers would have twigged to the fact that the detour, the additional cost of fuel and the extra time spent without a fare would have wiped out the profit. But then twigging isn't a very common activity in Hong Kong's urban environment.

Well, Week Ending would like to propose a radical solution. Freeing the market to find its own level is clearly not on the Government's agenda.

Apparently, no one believes the Western Harbour tunnel would attract enough traffic to break even if it charged a consumer-friendly toll.

And other operators might be jealous if the Cross-Harbour Tunnel Company made so much money out of charging what the market could bear that it could build a fourth tunnel within a year on the proceeds.

So, instead, how about slamming a tax on top of all tunnel tolls to bring them to the same level - let's say a stinging $50 a crossing, whichever tunnel you use, and (naturally) a double toll for taxi passengers.

This would have the desirable effect of forcing all non-essential tunnel users on to the buses and MTR, thereby massively reducing congestion and pollution at all crossings. Any driver not in a mad hurry to get across to the other side (i.e., anyone currently using the Cross-Harbour Tunnel) would head straight for the ferry pier.

This would, of course, involve reinstating vehicular ferries, perhaps even building a new tram system to take up the newly empty lanes in the tunnels and extending luxury airport bus routes to parts of Hong Kong Island now only served by taxi and ancient CMB bone-shakers.

And it would confirm Week Ending in our determination never to buy a car in Hong Kong. Which is an extra bonus for all those of you out there who thought all the most erratic drivers were already on the road.