Waiting won't solve city traffic woes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 August, 2010, 12:00am

Time, we've often heard, is money. Time in a traffic jam, however, is something less printable. In many ways, traffic in Hong Kong flows reasonably smoothly, especially considering the compactness of the Central business district and the hilly topography of the territory. But traffic - and the cost it extracts in time and efficiency lost - is an issue, and one that's been brought into fresh focus by a toll increase at the Western Harbour Tunnel.

The toll has been raised by HK$5 - and in our price-sensitive city, that has driven traffic to the considerably cheaper and therefore heavily congested Cross-Harbour Tunnel. If this doesn't sound like a particularly well-co-ordinated decision, it's because it wasn't. Under a deal with the western tunnel operators - the same that applies to the similarly privately run eastern tunnel - fees can be adjusted without approval.

The Cross-Harbour Tunnel is government-owned, and tolls there are heavily subsidised. The toll for private cars is 40 per cent of that for the Western Harbour Tunnel and 80 per cent of the Eastern Harbour Tunnel. And hence it is also by far the most used. One solution would be to raise tolls there to a more realistic level, so traffic would be more balanced and the daily peak hour-jam would perhaps become a distant memory. But a toll increase would be likely to attract widespread protest, so it is an unappealing option for the government.

Another option - buying back the operating rights to the tunnels - isn't likely. Such a move runs into the tens of billions of dollars and would doubtless attract its share of protest as well.

Meanwhile, we wait. The build, operate and transfer agreement on the eastern tunnel ends in 2016, when the operator has to hand it over to the government. That will also be the case for the western tunnel in 2023. In the meantime, the Central-to-Wan Chai bypass will begin operation in 2017.

There are other choices, but they have also been shunned by a government that does not like to rock the boat. Electronic road pricing is obvious; authorities contend that this won't be necessary as the bypass will put an end to congestion in the Central business district. Higher taxes and registration fees for vehicle ownership haven't been contemplated, nor have suggestions that alternatives like bicycles be used in our busiest areas been entertained.

When the western tunnel and bypass were mooted, the idea was that together, the infrastructure projects would alleviate traffic at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and open up the prospect for greater development of the western New Territories. But as long as the Cross-Harbour Tunnel toll remains unrealistically low and the fees for use of the other tunnels under Victoria Harbour are out of the government's hands, this isn't going to happen - at least not until 2023.

No one is suggesting that solving traffic woes is easy. Indeed, congestion is the scourge of all large cities. But it seems clear that better co-ordination of policies - not having terms that allow private operators of tunnels to effectively adjust fares at will, for example - could have helped alleviate some of the jams we now face.

More importantly, close co-ordination of policies in the future - and far-sighted and bold leadership - will be critical if we are to escape the gridlocked fate of many other major cities.

Waiting for things to get better isn't an option: Time, after all, is money.