More than a million people will be able to ride the MTR anywhere for HK$2 from late next month if the government's HK$400 million flat-fare transport scheme for the elderly and handicapped wins funding approval from the Legislative Council.
The new flat fare is set to be introduced in phases, starting with the MTR. Four of the five franchised bus companies will join in mid-September, followed by the New Lantao Bus Company and ferry operators early next year.
The government will pay the difference between HK$2 and the existing concessionary fare, but a charity that works with the elderly said yesterday that the transport operators should foot the bill eventually as part of their 'social responsibility'.
Doubts were also expressed about the future of the scheme if companies stopped their voluntary concessions, such as half fares for the elderly.
All people over 65 and those aged 11 to 64 with 100 per cent disability and receiving a disability allowance will be eligible for the low fare any day of the week using Octopus cards.
Funding for the scheme -which will benefit about 1.1 million people including 980,000 elderly - will go to the Legislative Council for approval on June 8.
'Due to the complexity of setting up a centralised settlement platform for the different transport operators with different calculation systems, the scheme will be pushed out in phases, as we hope to roll it out as soon as possible,' Labour and Welfare secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said yesterday.
The news was welcomed by Brotherhood Charity, a non-government organisation serving the elderly. 'The implementation - albeit slow - is better than nothing,' executive director Elton Lam said.
But he added that as Hong Kong society was ageing quickly and the cost of the scheme would rise, the next step would be to look at legislation such as requiring transport operators to adhere to the scheme as a condition of their licence renewal.
'Actually, it shouldn't be the government paying the outstanding amount. This is part of these companies' social responsibility. It shouldn't always be about profit-making,' he said.
Ng Wai-tung, of the Society for Community Organisation, added: 'These big companies earn a lot already. They should be the ones paying. The government subsidising just means we [the public] are actually the ones paying for it. Even Shenzhen has free transport for their elderly. We are already a step behind.'
The scheme relies on transport operators continuing their voluntary concessionary fares, and Lam said if the companies withdrew these concessions it would have to be halted.
A government spokeswoman said that if, for example, the original fare was HK$10 and the operator had a voluntary half-price concession, the government would pay HK$3 while the passenger paid HK$2.
She said transport operators had promised they would continue their voluntary concessions, but did not state for how long.