Solution must be found to tunnel problem

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

The predicted cross-harbour traffic chaos, resulting from an increase in tolls for the Eastern Harbour Tunnel, did not materialise yesterday. It was a victory for common sense - and provides much food for thought.

But serious congestion will soon arise unless the pragmatic and responsible approach adopted by motorists yesterday can be sustained. And that is probably too much to hope for.

The nightmare scenario had been that vehicles would shun the eastern route and head in large numbers for the cheaper Cross-Harbour Tunnel on the first working day after the toll rise. This, it was feared, would bring traffic to a virtual standstill in the centre of the city. There were concerns that ambulances would not be able to respond promptly to emergency calls and that schoolchildren would be late for their exams.

The reality yesterday was very different. The number of vehicles using the Eastern Harbour Tunnel plunged, as had been expected. But there was no surge in traffic using the more central alternative. The Transport Department's website reported that conditions at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel were normal.

Many motorists, alerted by government warnings to the likelihood of long delays, decided to start their journeys earlier or leave their cars at home. There were thousands of extra passengers on the MTR. Buses were busier than usual and extra trains were laid on to cope with the demand. There were fewer vehicles on the roads - and therefore less pollution.

A lesson to be learned from this commendable reaction to the threat of a cross-harbour crisis is that Hong Kong does not stop working when people leave their cars behind and use alternative means of transport. This is a positive development. It would be good if it happened every day.

It is, however, likely that motorists will start using the Cross-Harbour Tunnel in greater numbers once they realise that the congestion has not been as bad as anticipated. There is still a need to find a solution to the inability of the government to manage the traffic flow.

The problem arises because the eastern and western harbour tunnels are both in private hands. The government was powerless to stop the owners of the eastern tunnel steeply increasing its tolls on Sunday.

Only the Cross-Harbour Tunnel is publicly owned. It is the most popular route and, if market forces prevailed, should be the most expensive. But due to political pressure, the government has kept tolls at this tunnel low. The result is a distortion of the traffic flow. The Cross-Harbour Tunnel is too popular - and terribly congested at peak times.

The government has put forward a wide range of alternative ways the problem could be dealt with. The objective must be to secure control over toll prices at the three tunnels so that the traffic flow can be regulated. This might involve an expensive buy-back of the two that are in private hands. A new company could be established that would own all three. These options would take quite a lot of time to implement.

It has also been suggested that the government build a fourth cross-harbour tunnel. This is not a sensible option. The three that already exist are not used to capacity. We do not need a fourth.

Extending the franchises of the eastern and western tunnels, in return for lower tolls, is another option. But it would not provide a long-term solution, nor would offering concessions to drivers using the more expensive routes - although this might help in the short-term. The government may want to consider increasing the tolls at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel during peak hours while it considers the way ahead. It would have to overcome strong opposition from lawmakers. But the alternative is to sit back and wait for the predicted chaos to occur.

Common sense prevailed yesterday. But a long-term solution must still be found.