Tunnels turmoil takes its toll

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 March, 2005, 12:00am

The arrangements for the three cross-harbour tunnels make little sense. It would be easy to believe they had been devised with the intention of creating a traffic gridlock in the heart of the city. That has certainly been the result.

Every day, long queues form at either end of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which stretches from Causeway Bay to Hunghom. More than 120,000 vehicles pass through the tunnel each day. This is partly due to its central location and many convenient connections. But the main reason why it remains so popular is because the tunnel is owned by the government - which has kept its tolls cheap.

The terrible traffic congestion in Central and Kowloon would clearly be eased if more motorists chose to use the nearby Western Harbour Tunnel instead. But there is a major disincentive. The tolls for this tunnel, which is in private hands, are much higher. Many motorists prefer to save their money - and put up with the queues at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel instead.

Then there is the Eastern Harbour Tunnel, also privately owned. This falls between the other two in terms of toll levels and popularity. But the tolls will soon increase by as much as 67 per cent, as a result of the tunnel's owners winning a tussle with the government in arbitration. After the increases in May, the flow of vehicles through the eastern tunnel is expected to fall by 17 per cent.

The owners of both tunnels are perfectly entitled to set their tolls at levels permitted under the law. But the queues at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel are set to worsen - as is the congestion. No wonder the government is expressing its disappointment.

But officials are now seriously considering ways of bringing this crazy situation to an end. As things stand, the most popular tunnel is the cheapest. New arrangements are needed that will provide for more flexible - and sensible - toll levels, which will allow them to be used as a tool for managing the traffic flow.

The government's initiative is long overdue. One of the options being considered is that it should buy the two tunnels that are currently in private hands. This would allow a new scheme to be put in place that is more sensitive to traffic flows.

The problem with the current arrangements is that the three tunnels have different owners and the tolls are set according to different formulas. They make effective transport planning almost impossible to achieve. The idea of setting up a tunnel authority to manage all three routes is not new. It has been discussed many times in the past, but not implemented. The reality is that the government took the wrong approach many years ago.

Buying the tunnels is the most sensible option. It would provide for fair, transparent and flexible toll-setting mechanisms to be established. These should include higher tolls for peak times. The negotiations with the tunnel owners would, no doubt, be lengthy and complex. A major shareholder in both said on Thursday that the tunnels were not for sale. But if the price is right, a deal should be possible. The figure of $11 billion has been floated, but it could be much more. The funds could be raised through bonds.

After the buyout, the assets would not have to stay in government hands. There could be a securitisation, so long as the new toll mechanism is put in place.

The consequences of the government buying the tunnels could be far-reaching. It would provide for better traffic flow management, cutting down congestion and pollution in the city centre. But the move could also pave the way for the introduction of an electric road pricing system. This could ease the congestion further and perhaps remove the need to build the Central-Wan Chai bypass. This, in turn, would help preserve the harbour by sparing it further reclamation.

The nonsensical arrangements for the tunnels have existed for too long. It is time for action to be taken - and for the congestion to be eased.