Man vs machine in tunnel debate

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 August, 2010, 12:00am

A new proposed route for the Tseung Kwan O-Lam Tin Tunnel is promising to save nine hectares of land from being used for a toll plaza, but asks drivers to put their full faith in electronic payment technology.

The land - the size of about 18 soccer pitches - would be saved with the proposed route only if the community in Sai Kung and Tseung Kwan O agreed to forgo a traditional tunnel toll plaza in favour of sole use of an electronic charging system, the Civil Engineering and Development Department said yesterday.

While a district councillor and some drivers welcomed the latest proposal for the tunnel, a car owners' group warned the government that a good backup plan would be needed in case the electronic charging system broke down, and Sai Kung district councillor Christine Fong Kwok-shan even said using the tunnel should be free of charge.

An electronic road payment system is used at the exits of all major tunnels in Hong Kong, but cash payment is also available at toll booths since not all drivers in the city are equipped with the Autotoll system used for electronic payment.

Wong Wai-ming, chief engineer of the project, said a detailed study would be launched into payment systems after a route was selected.

'There is more than one way to do it; drivers can pre-pay the charges and have the toll deducted from their smart card every time they cross the tunnel, or our device can record their car plate number and we can pursue payment from them later. It would be a breakthrough to jump from the concept of a toll plaza [to this]. If the idea proves effective maybe future tunnels could adopt it as well.'

Wesley Wan Wai-hei, president of the Automobile Association, said he welcomed the proposal but also warned that there should be alternative arrangements.

'Will you just close down the tunnel [if the charging system breaks]? Or will people be deployed to collect tolls at the exit? The government should make plans for this.'

Wong said the department still has two to three years to study the options for the payment system amid evolving technology and changing policies.

The original proposal for the tunnel - a 4.8-kilometre S-shaped route under Junk Bay Chinese Permanent Cemetery, imposed technical difficulties and risked resettlement of graves and tombs, said critics, and also drew complaints from the public for its plan to reclaim 12 hectares of land in Junk Bay for the construction of a toll plaza.

After evaluation, the Civil Engineering and Development proposed three alternative options yesterday. Two of these still contained a toll plaza, only offering a marginal improvement in the environmental impact that would be brought by the project.

A third plan offers to minimise the area of reclamation to just three hectares, and will shorten the length of the route by some 600 metres, posing less danger to the environment and the cemetery, and costing HK$1.7 billion less than the HK$8 billion estimated for the original plan, the department said.