Debate on tunnel tolls long overdue

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 1:55am

It may be a coincidence that the proposed toll increases aimed at easing congestion at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel were released for public consultation two days ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday. As expected, the three highly controversial options tabled by the government have so far not generated much discussion. Now that the festive mood is fading, it is time we gave the proposals some serious consideration. Congestion goes beyond the nuisance of getting stuck in traffic. The economic losses arising from long journeys and emissions from slow-moving vehicles have huge implications. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity to get it right.

Under the three options, tolls for different vehicles at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel will be increased to help divert vehicles to the Eastern Harbour Tunnel, whose charges will be slashed but whose operator will be reimbursed from public funds. In theory, the increases, when implemented properly, should draw some drivers to the less-congested eastern tunnel. But drivers, like all consumers, may weigh the benefits against the costs, such as the extra fuel used when making a detour. With so many factors at play, it is not difficult to see why critics say the government's claim of reducing congestion at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel by up to 40 per cent may be wishful thinking. Whether the target can be achieved remains to be seen.

In a price-sensitive city like Hong Kong it is only natural that drivers, particularly those in commercial vehicles, will resist the proposed increase. The question of which types of vehicle should pay more may also upset certain sectors. But it will take a concerted effort to achieve the best outcome. If paying more is the answer to a long-standing problem, road users should be prepared to pay the price.

It is good to see the government has summoned the courage to roll out these long-overdue proposals. Highly controversial as they are, the options deserve thorough public debate. Officials have to do a better job in explaining the pros and cons of each option and make sure congestion can be eased.