Protesters march to tunnel as drivers count the cost

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2005, 12:00am

The first day of higher tolls for the Eastern Harbour Tunnel proved more disruptive to pedestrians than drivers as a phalanx of more than 200 noisy protesters snaked its way from Kwun Tong to the tunnel's Kowloon entrance.

Led by Motor Transport Workers' General Union chairman Li Wing-sang and members of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, the protesters quickly filled the already-narrow pavement, squeezing many bemused passersby onto the street.

At the bus stop just outside the tunnel, police had to redirect buses to pick up passengers outside the designated area after protesters marched through the bus lane.

After almost an hour, Mr Li instructed protesters to form a human chain around the New Hong Kong Tunnel Company building, where he handed a petition to a company representative.

Mr Li lambasted the tunnel operator for being 'greedy' and likened it to 'a blood-sucking monster', represented by a protester dressed in a devil's costume.

'The tunnel operator has no compassion and is not socially responsible,' Mr Li said. 'I agree that the toll hike is legal, but why such a big increase, especially so soon into the economic recovery?' Mr Li said the higher fees, up by as much as two-thirds, would have a big effect, especially on container truck drivers, whose income could be cut by 20 or 30 per cent, or between $1,000 and $3,000 a month.

He said he was extremely disappointed over the government's apparent inability to act against the operator, saying that given the tunnel's importance as a transport link, it could not simply be regarded as a private commercial asset.

Mr Li said yesterday's protest was a 'first step' for the union in trying to attract more public attention to the plight of commercial drivers. However, he would not say what the union's next step, if any, would be over the toll rise.

'The new tolls are a huge increase,' Mr Li said. 'The overall economy may be recovering and the jobless situation may be improving, but these benefits have yet to trickle down to the working public. Drivers are still struggling to make a decent living.'

As the protesters disbanded, Mr Li and several union representatives crossed the elevated pedestrian walkway to catch Cross-Harbour Tunnel buses, doing perhaps what other drivers are going to do to get around the toll increase.

Labour sector legislator Wong Kwok-hing, who joined Mr Li at the front of the protest, questioned why the increase did not go through Legco.

The DAB's Ho Yin-fai said the operator should not adjust tolls without fully considering the traffic consequences.

Under the new fare scale, private cars and taxis will pay $25 - an increase of $10 - to use the tunnel.