Officials guilty of tunnel vision by failing to tackle congestion

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 4:22am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 6:37am

Regrettably, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for cross-harbour traffic congestion is nowhere in sight. In yet another all-talk-and-no-action episode, the government has put off decisions on tackling congestion arising from uneven tunnel usage. The do-nothing approach, after years of study and consultations, is disappointing. While it may appease drivers opposed to a toll rise, it reflects badly on the government's lack of political will to resolve a long-standing problem. Meanwhile, tunnel users have no choice but to put up with jams for at least a few more years.

The idea of spreading traffic via toll adjustment is long overdue. It involves charging more for using the heavily congested Cross Harbour Tunnel, while slashing tolls at the private and underused eastern tunnel with a government subsidy. Unpopular as this is, it is something worth trying. But the transport chief thinks otherwise, citing the lack of consensus and recent changes in traffic levels as the reasons.

Officials are not obliged to implement the proposals. After all, the consultation is designed to find out what stakeholders prefer or dislike. If there is wide opposition, there is reason for a rethink. Yet the reasons given for keeping the status quo are unconvincing. Even if usage at the central and eastern tunnels is said to have eased and increased, respectively, in recent years without intervention, it is unclear whether that is a trend.

Successive governments have for years vowed to tackle the problem. Sadly, little has been done. All we have seen are rounds of studies without any way forward. Even when there seems to be a direction, it's leading to nowhere. The public could be excused for feeling frustrated and helpless.

Traffic congestion is common to many major cities. What sets Hong Kong apart is that it is aggravated by differential tunnel charges and ownerships. Officials understandably feel their hands are tied. But that does not mean they can just fold their arms as queues lengthen. Doing nothing is hardly responsible governance.

The problem is not just that it takes more time to reach a destination. For a business-conscious city like Hong Kong, every minute counts. A smoother journey means money and time saved, and less roadside pollution. It is true that there is no straightforward solution to congested tunnels. But the government will never succeed if it does not give it a try. The last thing officials want is to be seen as having tunnel vision.