MTR boss claims Carrie Lam backs Hong Kong public transport subsidies
Details scant, but railway operator chairman describes plan as part of efforts to help working class
Hong Kong’s leader is eager to subsidise public transport fares with billions of dollars in dividend payouts received annually from the MTR Corporation, according to the railway operator’s chairman.
Frederick Ma Si-hang said a move would uphold an election pledge by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor made in February. It is expected to ease the burden felt by the city’s working class, with payouts not only benefiting MTR commuters but also those who use other means of public transport such as buses and minibuses.
As the government holds a 75 per cent stake in the MTR Corp and is its major shareholder, Lam said she would spend the annual dividends payable to the city – currently around HK$4 billion a year – to alleviate commuters’ transport costs.
Her idea echoed a proposal Ma voiced a year ago urging the government to offer fare subsidies with MTR dividends.
But the proposal was quickly dismissed by former transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung as “unfeasible”. Cheung contended that public money should not be used to fund profit-making organisations.
Speaking on a radio programme on Wednesday, Ma praised Lam for her willingness to adopt a new approach in the matter. He said the operator was now in discussions with officials over how a plan could be implemented.
“It isn’t time yet to disclose the details. But the chief executive already set out this major directive,” he said, alluding to a conversation with Lam in May. “So, for me, this measure will definitely be in force.”
Ma added he agreed with the thinking that the initiative should not only benefit the MTR but also other public transport.
“If just the MTR were subsidised, this would not be a good thing as everyone would come to us seeking rides,” he said. “This would impose a heavy burden on [the MTR] and affect our services.”
Ma emphasised that current rail concessions would continue, irrespective of the extra subsidies.
Quentin Cheng Hin-kei, spokesman for concern group Public Transport Research Team, said Lam’s move was an obvious attempt to drum up public support and win plaudits.
He warned, however, that it would set a “bad precedent” for subsidising private enterprises.
“Nobody will be against this generous offer, but dishing out handouts to please the public is not a long-term solution for easing public burdens. The government should fine-tune the existing fare setting mechanism instead of giving its dividend payouts, which will easily erode over time,” he added.