The way forward
With a 70 per cent rise in toll charges at the Eastern Harbour Tunnel coming into effect yesterday, there is a great worry that this will force many motorists to switch to the already heavily used Cross-Harbour Tunnel, worsening the congestion there. Last week, the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau listed 12 possible options for a long-term solution.
At present, the three cross-harbour tunnels, taken together, are only operating at 70 per cent capacity. Thus, there is neither a case for building yet another tunnel, nor encouraging the commercial operators of the Eastern Harbour Tunnel and Western Harbour Tunnel, which are underused, to keep on raising charges.
Given the different ownership and toll policies among the three tunnel operators, there is no basis for co-ordinating and rationalising traffic flow. Under the existing franchise, there is no way for the government to stop a private operator raising charges up to the permitted profit level. Yet, further fee rises would only divert even more traffic to the government-owned Cross-Harbour Tunnel. For city-wide traffic management purposes, it is worth considering unifying ownership and management of all three tunnels. However, if the administration buys back the franchise of the other two tunnels, this would go against the present policy of 'small government'. Besides, there may be opposition to using public funds this way when there is still uncertainty over the city's financial prospects.
Selling the Cross-Harbour Tunnel to the owners of the other two tunnels, or forming a joint company to own all three tunnels, seems more feasible, but privatisation or partial divestment may raise as many questions as the Link Reit listing or Airport Authority privatisation. There are doubts about whether the government has enough political capital to fight this battle. Extending the existing franchises in exchange for a no-fee-increase concession from the private tunnel owners, as some advocate, may sound possible, but it may create a precedent whereby the government could be held to ransom by utilities' operators. Even if political expediency calls for such a trade-off, the question is still what kind of extension would be a fair deal for the public.
In the long run, the government should aim to set up either a tunnel authority to help enforce a co-ordinated approach to tolls, as a condition of the franchise, or a single tunnel corporation to help facilitate the plan for tunnel utilisation and pricing. There is little that the administration can do legally to prevent the private operators increasing tolls. However, it should work on the economic levers. Simply raising the Cross-Harbour Tunnel charges to make the other two seem less expensive might be criticised as helping to justify the 'unreasonable' rise by the private operators. The government's problem lies in the increased congestion predicted to affect the Cross-Harbour Tunnel.
The short-term solution is to efficiently manage the extra traffic resulting from the fee increase at the Eastern Harbour Tunnel, by persuading some users to turn to public transport and adjusting its tunnel charges, without being seen as triggering a series of increases.
The government could adopt flexible pricing, raising charges at peak times and reducing fees slightly during off-peak hours. More than half the vehicles using the Eastern Harbour Tunnel are private cars. Some of these drivers could be persuaded to switch to public transport. The same may apply to Cross-Harbour Tunnel users. Should excessive fees turn out to be counterproductive, by driving down usage, economic forces will make the commercial tunnel operators think again. Indeed, they might even lower charges to bring back customers.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is a professor of public administration at City University of Hong Kong and chairman of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank