Harbour tunnel fees must balance off queues

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 September, 2010, 12:00am

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has pledged that his government will not be a 'lame-duck' administration in its last two years; he says he does not want to go without addressing two major socio-economic problems that await his successor - the growing wealth gap and our ageing population. Meanwhile, the public is clamouring for action on a more immediate livelihood issue - affordable housing for ordinary people.

These problems are major and cannot be solved overnight. There are some other ways, however, to make tangible differences to people's everyday lives - by making something go away. It would be an invisible legacy, but one in keeping with his campaign slogan, 'I'll get the job done'.

This time we are not talking about air pollution - though that is relevant. It is about the reason people could be reading this article, or talking on their mobile, while sitting behind the wheel of a car in heavy traffic, without posing a danger to anyone else although they would be technically breaking the law. We are talking about the time- and money-wasting, polluting traffic queues caused by Cross-Harbour Tunnel congestion, while two nearby tunnels remain underused.

The inexplicable dysfunction of this city's huge investment in a three-tunnel, cross-harbour traffic solution will not change so long as the gap between the tolls for the cheaper, government-run Cross-Harbour Tunnel and the privately run eastern and western crossings continues to widen.

Some hope that this sentiment may be confounded, however, is to be found in our report yesterday about a study by the Transport and Housing Bureau on rationalising the tolls. The government is leaning towards an increase for the cheaper government tunnel in order to reimburse the private operators of the other tunnels for a toll cut. For example, an increase of HK$5 to HK$25 for private cars in the Cross-Harbour Tunnel would be used to offset the charge in the eastern crossing, where the operator is seeking approval for a 40 per cent increase from HK$25 to HK$35.

The government would have to swallow its - and the public's - distaste for a Cross-Harbour Tunnel toll increase while the others are so much dearer. But it has remained unchanged at HK$20 for 11 years, while in 2005 an arbitrator granted the eastern operator a rise of 60 per cent to maintain a reasonable annual rate of return. Last month the underused western crossing operator raised the toll for private cars from HK$45 to HK$50.

How long can this go on before the queues for the central crossing grow beyond endurance - until 2016? That is when the eastern operator's franchise ends and the government takes over the tunnel, enabling it to rationalise tolls for those two tunnels, at least.

But why wait? It would be simpler, and more efficient, for the government in the meantime to try to strike a balance between pricing and queues.

It would be hard for anyone to sustain a credible protest for very long against the first toll rise in more than a decade.

It's certainly a step that Tsang could make - albeit an unpopular one - that would be a meaningful contribution towards cutting roadside air pollution emitted by long queues of idling engines.