Consultant offers nine scenarios to ease traffic

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 November, 2010, 12:00am

It was a rosy picture - an end to lengthy queues at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, acceptable traffic flow at the other two crossings and perhaps even profits for the government.

Consultancy firm Wilbur Smith Associates yesterday reported on its two-year study to find a solution to the uneven traffic distribution among the three harbour crossings.

It said traffic could be more evenly dispersed if the toll for private cars was lifted by HK$5 for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and reduced for the Eastern Harbour Tunnel - with the government subsidising any losses.

It forecast the government could gain up to HK$280 million in extra profits annually - or in a worst-case scenario lose HK$25 million a year - depending on which of the consultant's nine proposals was adopted.

But people close to the New Hong Kong Tunnel Co, which operates the Eastern Harbour Tunnel, said the company was more likely to go ahead with its planned toll rise than agree to a subsidised toll reduction.

In the best-case scenario, a HK$5 toll rise for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel would divert just 4,300 vehicles - or 3.5 per cent of the 122,000 that use the crossing every day - to the Eastern Harbour Tunnel.

'I don't think [the extra users] are sufficient incentive for the board to give up on a toll rise,' one of the people said. 'It is a simple business decision - the company wants a fair return, regardless of whether it comes from the government or motorists.'

The South China Morning Post earlier calculated that at least 15 per cent of the traffic using the Cross-Harbour Tunnel would need to be diverted to the eastern crossing to make reducing the toll profitable enough for the operator. With 15 per cent extra traffic, the eastern tunnel operator would earn about HK$920 million more a year at the existing toll level - a similar amount to the extra earnings if its toll rise is approved.

The firm proposed a toll rise of 40 per cent in September. Given its internal rate of return on equity is lower than the level it is entitled to, there is a good chance it will be approved.

But a spokesman for the Transport and Housing Bureau said it would continue to negotiate with the eastern tunnel's operator. 'You cannot assume that the Eastern Harbour Tunnel must get what they want [a toll rise]. And you cannot assume that taxpayers or Legco aren't willing to pay a bit more to solve the problem,' he said. 'We won't make a decision until we've consulted the public.'

Yesterday, the consultancy firm gave projections of traffic flow across nine different scenarios. All involved toll adjustments - although none were recommended for the Western Harbour Tunnel as the road networks connecting to it do not have the capacity for more traffic. The firm estimated queues at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel could be reduced by 52 per cent if private cars were charged HK$25 to use the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and HK$20 for the Eastern Harbour Tunnel.

That reduction could be up to 77 per cent if the toll structure is also changed, with heavy users such as cargo vans and large trucks bearing a higher proportion of the toll rise.

It said calls for the government to buy back the two privately owned tunnels should be discussed after 2017 - when the Central-Wan Chai Bypass taking traffic from the western tunnel is ready and the eastern tunnel returned to the government.

Tunnel vision

The firm proposed the government subsidise losses on reduced fees

A HK$5 Cross-Harbour Tunnel toll rise would divert just 4,300 vehicles a day to the eastern crossing, or: 3.5%