Political parties have promised to do their best to block an application by the operator of the profit-making Eastern Harbour Tunnel to increase tolls by 40 per cent.
The Democratic Party, Federation of Trade Unions, Civic Party and Liberal Party all organised protests outside the New Hong Kong Tunnel Company's headquarters in Cha Kwo Ling yesterday after learning it had applied for the increase, which would raise the toll for cars from HK$25 to HK$35.
The news came a month after the Western Harbour Tunnel raised its tolls and brought warnings that in doing so it would add even more to congestion in the clogged and much cheaper Cross-Harbour Tunnel.
But the company, which made an after-tax profit of HK$400 million last year, said it was 'entitled to a reasonable but not excessive remuneration' during its franchise under the Eastern Harbour Crossing Ordinance.
'The company has been striving to reduce its operating expenses and strengthen its competitiveness over the past few years,' it said in a statement. 'However, as the franchise to operate the tunnel will expire in 2016, the board of directors has decided to apply for a toll increase in order to bring it closer to a 'reasonable but not excessive' investment return to its shareholders.'
The Transport and Housing Bureau said it had received the application and would consult the Transport Advisory Committee and the Legislative Council transport panel before it was submitted to the Chief Executive and Executive Council.
The Liberal Party said it would press the government to turn down the application.
FTU lawmaker Ip Wai-ming, a member of the transport panel, said his party was considering a signature campaign to put pressure on the company to shelve its plan. Ip also planned to call the tunnel company to the Legislative Council to explain why it was asking for a big toll rise when it was making a large profit.
'Allowing the application is going to open the door to more rises in fares of public transport. Even though the company is likely to be able to get the toll increase, we will still do our best to put pressure on it and the government to shelve the plan,' Ip said.
Taxi and Public Light Bus Concern Group chairman Lai Ming-hung said he would try to find ways to voice opposition but admitted the group would have difficulty changing the company's decision. 'Even the government can't stop the company raising its toll, so how could ordinary citizens like us,' Lai said.
More taxi and minibus drivers would cut their costs by using the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which charges only HK$20 for a car, he said.
Last month the underused western tunnel increased the toll for private cars from HK$45 to HK$50 and for taxis from HK$40 to HK$45.
The average daily two-way traffic of the western tunnel is 51,900, compared to 121,700 in the central tunnel and 68,300 in the eastern tunnel.
Dr Timothy Hau Doe-kwong, associate professor of the school of economics and finance at the University of Hong Kong, said a big toll rise would push more drivers towards the Cross-Harbour Tunnel.
He said the government-owned tunnel, as the busiest, should be the one to increase tolls.
The extra money could then be used to subsidise users of the other two tunnels.
'We are not talking only about the economic cost to drivers after the toll rise, but also the social cost with the problem of uneven distribution of drivers using the three cross-harbour tunnels,' he said.
Hau said the government should seriously consider buying back 51 per cent of the Eastern Harbour Tunnel as an interim measure while planning for a fourth cross-harbour tunnel in the long term.
Allowing the application is going to open the door to more rises in fares of public transport
Legislator Ip Wai-ming, on the effects of an increased tunnel toll
Profit and loss
The operator of the eastern tunnel made an after-tax profit last year of HK$400 million
After the increase, a car trip through the eastern tunnel will cost this much more than through the central tunnel: $15