Tolls at indebted western tunnel go up tomorrow

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 July, 2010, 12:00am

Congestion at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel - already chronic - is expected to worsen when tolls for drivers taking the underused, debt-ridden Western Harbour Tunnel rise tomorrow. The toll for private cars will be increased to HK$50 from HK$45 and for taxis from HK$40 to HK$45.

The Western Harbour Tunnel Company said its financial difficulties lay behind the increases.

'The company faces increased operating costs and needs to raise sufficient cash flow to repay debts and earn a reasonable return,' general manager Kenneth Pang Wai-hung said. Tolls had to go up to ensure the company remained viable, Pang said.

He noted that the tunnel cost HK$7 billion to build and the company had outstanding debts of HK$2.6 billion at the end of December. The company estimates it needs annual net revenue of HK$200 million for the remaining 13 years of its franchise to repay the debt.

The average daily two-way traffic flow of the tunnel is 51,900, compared with 121,700 in the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and 68,300 in the Eastern Harbour Tunnel, the Transport Department says.

The department estimates the toll increase will reduce traffic in the western tunnel by about 5 per cent, raise traffic flow by 1 per cent at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and push up usage of the Eastern Harbour Tunnel by 2 per cent.

Under its franchise, the operators of the western tunnel, the largest of the three crossings, have a statutory right to raise tolls to ensure a specified rate of return. But with its tolls far higher than for the other two crossings, it has consistently seen the least traffic.

Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, spokesman for a coalition that monitors public transport and utility firms, said the government must redirect the traffic flow among the three crossings. 'Congestion of the Cross- Harbour Tunnel is getting more and more serious whilst the Western Harbour Tunnel does not have enough users. It is a vicious circle that will ultimately cause members of the public to suffer the most.'

Tsoi said the economy would also be affected by the congestion. 'The government's transport policy has not changed at all and it has been a mess for a long time,' he said.

An independent traffic consultant was commissioned early last year to study how to ease chronic congestion at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel by diverting traffic to the other two.

'A report is expected to be completed in this quarter and we are open to any available option, including raising tunnel fees and buying back the franchises earlier,' a spokesman for the Transport and Housing Bureau said.

Unionist lawmaker Ip Wai-ming, transport spokesman for the Federation of Trade Unions, said the toll increases were unreasonable since many Hong Kong people had yet to reap the fruits of economic recovery after the financial crisis.

Ip feared the higher fees would prompt other transport operators to charge more, fuelling inflation.

Tolls at the western tunnel were last raised in 2008, and before that in 2004.