When the Western Harbour Crossing was planned in the early 1990s, it was envisioned that about 80,000 vehicles would use it everyday when it opened in 1997.
Today, the $7.5 billion tunnel's average daily traffic flow is less than 40,000. The lower-than-expected usage has been blamed on congestion in Central as a result of delays in building the Central-Wan Chai bypass and lower tolls charged by other harbour crossings.
But it was ironic that instead of lowering its tolls to boost patronage, the tunnel company raised them last year - thanks to an automatic toll adjustment mechanism stipulated in its franchise. The rise is set to put the company into the black this year, but that has been at the expense of more congestion at the other two harbour crossings, whose tolls have remained unchanged.
Surely, the investors who put up the money to build the Western Harbour Crossing are entitled to get their stipulated profits. But it is certainly not in the public interest that it is failing to relieve congestion at the two other crossings. The crux of the problem is that the three crossings were built at different times by different owners. As the newest and most costly tunnel, the Western Harbour Crossing has to charge higher tolls, whereas tolls at the older and more cheaply built ones cannot be raised without inviting a backlash.
Yet, on transport management grounds, tolls at the older tunnels should have been raised and those at the Western Harbour Crossing lowered so that traffic would be more evenly distributed. But that would not be possible unless the tunnels were put under one authority. And that is easier said than done, as it would be difficult to negotiate buy-backs from the owners of the tunnels. If a tunnel authority were to be set up, it should be controlled by the Government. The last thing Hong Kong needs is to have one private company controlling all three tunnels.