Time to end gridlock on tunnel traffic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2008, 12:00am

Heated debates have gone on for years about how to equalise traffic across all three cross-harbour tunnels. Yet virtually each day, most cars still gravitate towards the Cross-Harbour Tunnel between Causeway Bay and Hung Hom as it charges the lowest tolls. The price differences are simply too great for most motorists to ignore.

Now, the Western Harbour Tunnel between Western and Yau Ma Tei has announced it will end many of its fare concessions, introduced last July to offset some of its toll increases. This can only worsen the problem. Even though the company has been making money in recent years, it is not making as much as allowed by law. Don't blame the company for trying to maximise profits, but rather the transport officials who negotiated the original contract for allowing such generous profit estimates. The Eastern Harbour Tunnel between Quarry Bay and Yau Tong, which, so far, has not applied for increases, may well follow suit.

The toll increases will probably send more traffic towards the already-congested Cross-Harbour Tunnel. But it is hard to see how it could take more vehicles when it has already reached saturation. Its predicament partly stems from the government's lack of traffic management and co-ordination of the three harbour tunnels. But even if there had been a serious attempt at traffic rationalisation, it would have been difficult to achieve. The tunnels were built at different times, under vastly different economic conditions and cost structures. The western and eastern tunnels are privately owned, while the Cross-Harbour Tunnel was handed back to the government in 1999.

Ever since, the government has been running the tunnel like a subsidised public service and has refused to adjust tolls in line with market - and traffic - conditions. While this might have avoided public outcries, it has also helped contribute to almost daily congestion at both ends. The other two tunnels operate under commercial principles. They remain underused but still make respectable profits. A tunnel authority has been proposed from time to time to rationalise the tolls of all three tunnels. But this is only possible if the government buys back the other two commercial tunnels. This would be at a prohibitively high cost to taxpayers.

Road pricing is another idea that has been floated. But transport officials have been stalling over its implementation on the grounds that there are no alternative bypasses for some trunk roads. Yet pricing the use of roads has to be a key traffic management measure, and we should not have to wait until all the bypasses are completed.

As a start, the government needs to bite the bullet and adjust the tolls for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel. This would help equalise the traffic with the other tunnels. Raising tolls for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel would no doubt cause a public outcry, but it need not. Buses, trucks, mini-vans and other commercial vehicles could still pay the current tolls. Only private cars and taxis need to pay more. Different tolls at various times of day and night should also be considered. The Cross-Harbour Tunnel is not just a public service; it needs to be run in relation to overall traffic management. A more holistic approach is needed to resolve chronic gridlock.