Enough tunnel vision

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 November, 2004, 12:00am

What if tolls at the government-owned Cross-Harbour Tunnel (CHT) were raised? This is one question that Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen has asked the public to consider as part of his consultation on the next budget.

So far, the response to this politically incorrect suggestion has been surprisingly muted. Mr Tang has not been hounded by critics, although it is far too early to say he will not be condemned if he does decide to do what he proposes.

A heartening development is that there is a growing consensus on the need to tackle the serious traffic congestion caused by an uneven distribution of traffic between the three harbour tunnels.

Legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip, vice-chairman of the Legislative Council's transport panel, has even endorsed the idea of setting up an authority to own and manage major infrastructures, including the three tunnels, so that their tolls could be tailored to regulate traffic. In his view, with the economy picking up, the government should be thinking about negotiating a buy-back of the private Western Harbour Crossing (WHC), whose franchise has another 23 years to go.

The CHT now is most heavily used because it has the lowest tolls and is most centrally located. With so many vehicles using the tunnel, roads leading to and from it on both sides of the harbour are choked at all hours.

The location of the other privately-owned tunnel, Eastern Harbour Crossing (EHC), limits its ability to relieve the CHT. But it is disappointing that while the WHC is an accessible and close alternative to the CHT, it has been underutilised since it was opened in 1997 because it has to charge high tolls to pay for its huge construction bill. For example, its fee for private cars, at $40, is double the CHT toll.

Economists have noted that if the CHT had adjusted its tolls in line with inflation, the fee for private cars, set at $5 when it was first opened in 1972, should have been $36 by now. If such an adjustment were made, then the WHC's $40 toll would not look so expensive.

But previous government attempts to raise CHT tolls have been knocked back by political opposition on the grounds that they should be kept low as it has long paid for itself.

Whether Mr Tang will push ahead with an increase this time remains to be seen. On RTHK radio on Monday, he was vague about whether increasing CHT's tolls was among the revenue-raising options that he would seriously pursue. But he noted a caller's concern that higher CHT tolls might give room for other tunnels to lift charges.

At its root, the three tunnels' problem lies in the fact that their tolls cannot be structured to reflect their relative popularity because of different owners and cost structures. The situation would have been different had there been one owner.

The idea of putting all three tunnels under the ownership and management of a tunnel authority has been mooted for a long time. But that would involve the government negotiating a buy-back of the EHC and WHC. Alternatively, the government could reach an agreement with the WHC so the additional revenue from higher tolls at the CHT would be used to keep the WHC tolls low.

Both are controversial ideas. But if Mr Chan's views could be regarded as a breakthrough among politicians, then the government should perhaps take appropriate steps to see how the mess now could be resolved one way or another.

It would be unwise for the government to simply raise tolls at the CHT so it would collect more revenue and the WHC's charges appear less exorbitant. Instead, the focus should be on developing a scheme to ensure an efficient distribution of traffic among the three tunnels and reasonable returns for their operators.

C.K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy