Government can raise toll and revenue by revisiting tunnel vision

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2005, 12:00am

'...the administration has pointed out the positive impact on traffic management of the proposed toll increase. It is expected that with the proposed CHT (Cross-Harbour Tunnel) toll increase, 10,000 private cars will be diverted to the Eastern Harbour Crossing and the Western Harbour Crossing per day. This will greatly relieve the traffic congestion in the vicinity of CHT'


Legislative Council paper


AHEM, YES, I did forget to mention one thing in quoting the excerpt above. That Legco paper was published in 1999. It dates back to the time the government resumed ownership of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and decided forthwith to double tolls for private cars to $20.


The paper was also forthright about another reason for it - 'The administration's reason for the toll increase ... is to raise revenue.'


Of course, the usual dissenting voices had their say in Legco, most of them the same people now protesting against the Eastern Harbour Crossing's toll increase, and with the same objections - it is too big an increase, the time is not right, it is unfair to the travelling public.


All of it was to no avail. The protests were brushed aside and the measure was approved.


We shall ignore the objective of raising revenue. The government has now pretty much balanced its books again and does not really need the money. But if raising tolls on the Cross-Harbour Tunnel made sense on traffic management grounds in 1999, it does so even more now.


With the eastern crossing's tolls now up to $25 a car, how can we rebalance use of the harbour tunnels so the one in the middle, the most heavily used one, is not pushed too far beyond overcapacity with severe implications for traffic jams on either side?


The government has given itself 12 options for achieving this, including such things as buying out the private ownership of the other two tunnels (much too costly), extending their franchise (not a bad idea), forcing the other two to lower their fares (legally impossible) and building another tunnel (straight out of Fantasyland).


But the most obvious solution, raising tolls on the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, the one tunnel the government owns outright, was given short shrift.


According to a government press release, Deputy Secretary for Environment, Transport and Works Annie Choi concedes that 'an overall increase in Cross-Harbour Tunnel tolls is the most direct and effective way to curb traffic. But considerable opposition from users is expected and it would require amendments to the Road (Government) Regulations.'


This has me scratching my head. Did 'considerable opposition from users' stop the government from deciding to double the tolls in 1999?


Is there not an even greater traffic management reason for raising them now? Get on with things and make that amendment, Ms Choi.


And if you think there may be justice in protests that a higher toll on the Cross-Harbour Tunnel is unfair, here are two points to consider.


We shall leave tolls for goods vehicles and buses aside for the moment (although there is equally good reason why they should go up). Let us consider only cars, for which the starting toll was $5 in 1972.


Now look at the first chart. The blue line represents the actual toll since that time (I am not absolutely certain that there was no increase pre-1984. We are talking ancient history here). The red line shows what it would have been if that toll had kept pace with inflation. It would now be more than $34.


The second chart shows you that cars in Hong Kong are still a luxury for the rich. There are fewer than six of them on the road for every 100 people. For an economy as wealthy as ours you would ordinarily expect the ratio to be nearer that of the United States.


There are reasons why that ratio is what it is, but it still says that those who would bear the cost of higher car tolls could probably afford it.


What is it with this dilly-dallying about an obvious measure? It could be done with ease in 1999. It can be done now.


 

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