Two years after a consultant suggested ways to ease congestion in the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, the government finally seems to be taking action.
However, while the proposal to adjust tolls could be effective in evening out the traffic between the cross-harbour and eastern tunnels, the government must be careful in selecting which vehicles to target.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said in his policy address last week he would consult the public on a plan to adjust tunnel tolls in the first half of the year. He gave no details of the plan, but said the general direction would be lifting tolls for the government-owned Cross-Harbour Tunnel and cutting those for the Eastern Harbour Tunnel. The government would compensate the owner of the eastern crossing, New Hong Kong Tunnel Co, for any loss in revenue.
This came after the report was released in 2010 of a two-year government-commissioned study into how to even out the traffic at the three harbour tunnels. It suggested a HK$5 increase in private car tolls for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which connects Hung Hom and Wan Chai, and a reduction of the same amount at the eastern tunnel, which links Quarry Bay and Cha Kwo Ling.
According to the report, 122,000 cars go through the Hung Hom tunnel every day, 79 per cent more than use the eastern tunnel, and 6 per cent more than the tunnel could handle without congestion.
In a Legislative Council meeting to discuss transport policies on Friday, lawmakers raised concerns about which types of vehicles would face higher tolls. This is a legitimate question; the government cannot simply apply the increase to every car on the road.
There is no point raising tolls for public transport vehicles, which are obliged to take certain routes. Increasing their tolls would not only have a negligible effect in reducing traffic, but passengers may also pay the price in the form of higher fares. Franchised bus operators were quick to respond after the 2010 report, saying they would be under pressure to raise fares if the proposed rise in bus tolls, from HK$15 to HK$50, was adopted. Costs would shoot up by tens of millions of dollars, they said.
Veteran transport analyst Dr Hung Wing-tat, of Polytechnic University, said it would be most effective to adjust the tolls for goods-carrying vans, as they travelled across the harbour a few times a day. A smaller toll discrepancy would just make them change routes, he said.
Light goods vehicles are charged HK$15 at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, and HK$38 at the eastern tunnel.
Private consultant Kelvin Leung Chi-wai agreed that adjusting tolls would be a feasible way of ensuring the traffic is more evenly distributed between the two tunnels, but he said the government would need to study the figures carefully to decide exactly how to do it.
And the third tunnel? The toll discrepancies between the more expensive Western Harbour Tunnel and the other two cross-harbour tunnels mean it would be enough to ease congestion simply by adjusting the tolls for the other two crossings, which see far more traffic.
Motorists have already waited too long in queues at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel. At Legco on Friday, transport and housing minister Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the government was drafting details of the plan. Let's hope we see some action soon.