How to make sense of cross-harbour tolls

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 February, 2003, 12:00am

The Hong Kong government has at long last appointed a consultant to look at usage of the three tunnels that link Hong Kong Island with Kowloon. Hopefully, the consultant will come up with sensible ways of optimising the use of each, and thereby shorten travel times and enhance the financial health of the Western Harbour Crossing's operator, which has been losing money since the tunnel opened in 1997.

This newspaper has long argued that the toll structures of the three tunnels make no sense. As tolls at the older tunnels are kept low, motorists tend to use them rather than the Western Harbour Crossing, which has to charge much higher tolls to cover its construction costs. As a result, it has failed to relieve congestion at the other tunnels. Still, in order to cut its losses it has had to raise its tolls yet again, even though this will certainly further reduce patronage and mean even longer queues at the other two.

On transport management grounds, a strong case exists for cross-subsidisation among the tunnels. That could be done by getting the owners of the three tunnels - the government and two private companies - to agree to vary their tolls in order to distribute traffic more evenly and to split the receipts according to an accepted formula.

Alternatively, the government could set up a tunnel authority to acquire the three tunnels, and impose an appropriate toll schedule at each to ensure they are all fully utilised. Provided a suitable scheme of control is put in place, a private company could also be entrusted with that responsibility.

Pursuing any one of the options could mean protracted negotiations about the size of the cross-subsidies and the value of the franchises. The community will also need to be consulted on the pros and cons of each option, as public money will be involved.

But the current situation should not be allowed to drag on. It is an enormous waste of social resources to find the main roads at both ends of the older tunnels always clogged by traffic, while the Western Harbour Crossing is underused.

Adjusting the tolls to reflect the tunnels' relative popularity is also necessary, in case it becomes necessary to introduce road pricing as a means of regulating traffic.