LEGISLATORS have good reason to baulk at the generous terms of the Western Harbour Crossing toll formula. The franchisee will not only have a virtual monopoly over road traffic between Hongkong Island and Chek Lap Kok Airport, but will be guaranteed abumper return of between 15 and 18 per cent on its investment.
More advantageous still, the tunnel operator will be able to increase the toll virtually at will to keep it within those limits. Market forces will limit this flexibility to the extent that high tolls may deter non-airport traffic - but only for as long asthe tolls on the other tunnels are kept disproportionately low.
Although the Executive Council may be permitted to scrutinise the accounts before being asked to rubber stamp any increase, the Legislative Council will not be involved. So much for the Executive being accountable to the Legislature. No wonder Legislative Councillors are seeing red. Nor is it any wonder that China was so ready to agree to this while other infrastructure plans continue to languish.
Always happy to sideline Legco, China also has an interest in maximising the profits from the scheme. The tunnel consortium includes two Chinese companies, CITIC and China Merchants, as well as Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok's Kerry Trading and the Cross-Harbour Tunnel Company. China has nothing to gain by further delay.
For the traveller, the deal is less attractive. Added to the high toll expected for use of the Lantau Fixed Crossing, the tunnel toll will make access to the airport a very costly business.
This is a classic case of governments - Hongkong and Chinese - dealing directly with big business at the expense of the consumer. That it is also at the expense of legislative control is an added attraction for the governments as well as the franchisees.