Smoke and mirrors of ferry economics

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 7:52am

Transport officials want to spend a whopping HK$610 million to build additional floors on the Central ferry piers to enhance the shopping and dining experience in the heart of the city.

The plan is for the new facilities to have fabulous green features, including air-con with carbon dioxide sensors to control the fresh air supply. Believe me, visitors and workers there will really need those sensors. Why? Because the piers are berths to some of the world's most polluting ferries.

Frankly, our bureaucrats have got to be kidding. Perhaps they should pay a visit to the site besides looking at spreadsheets.

As well as the glory of our harbour, the lasting impression visitors take away from the piers is the choking exhaust fumes of the vessels operated by New World First Ferry and Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry.

And this is a tourist attraction our bureaucrats want to showcase to the world?

Operators like New World think they are performing a noble public service, with their executives never tiring of telling us how economically unviable the business really is.

Ummm … isn't that why taxpayers have been subsidising the operators to a maximum of HK$115 million over the past three years? Now they want the cap raised to HK$191 million for the next three years.

That's the real reason the Transport Bureau wants to build more floors on the piers - to generate extra rent and revenue to cross-subsidise the ferries. The obvious thing, or so it seems to most clean-air advocates, is to tie the subsidies to a requirement that the ferry operators clean up their act. Yet the companies are being treated with kid gloves.

With the subsidies and planned extra storeys, public spending on ferries is pushing a billion dollars. If we're looking at a financial black hole, the government should at least offer new ferry tenders with full subsidies to upgrade emission standards.

Pan-democrats such as Kwok Ka-ki and Albert Chan Wai-yip have suggested off the cuff that the government take over the ferry services, which transport chief Anthony Cheung Bing-leung estimated would cost HK$1.7 billion. Given what we will be spending anyway, that might not be such a bad idea.