Once again, users of the cross-harbour tunnels face the prospect of dearer tolls. Those using the Eastern Harbour Tunnel have been spared a 40 per cent increase for now because the government believes the operator is already making reasonable profits. But the operator is taking the case to arbitration, where it has twice won before. Meanwhile, polluting traffic queues at the entrances to the main tunnel, the Cross-Harbour Tunnel between Causeway Bay and Hung Hom, persist while the other two remain underused.
Whether the increase will be allowed is now a matter for the arbitrators to decide. The government has rejected the adjustment, for reasons which are easy to understand. The company's internal rate of return is expected to reach 14.3 per cent, which is an enviable figure for any business. While commuters may be ready to pay more in light of 5.5 per cent inflation, a 40 per cent increase, if approved, would outstrip the fare adjustments of between 2 and 12 per cent approved for major public transport operators recently. But more importantly, the increase is likely to worsen congestion at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel if the eastern one becomes more expensive to use.
The serious traffic jams that prolong the journeys of hundreds of thousands of commuters every day are avoidable. The uneven tolls charged by the three tunnels are the reason for the heavy congestion at the government-owned Cross-Harbour Tunnel, where a private-car driver pays only HK$20. But the government seems to lack the political will to rationalise the tolls. Officials may think their hands are tied until the government can take over the other two tunnels when their licences expire in 2016 and 2023. But it should not just sit on the recommendations of its consultants in the meantime. Unpopular though it may be, the proposal to spread the traffic by increasing the tolls for the government-owned tunnel is worth trying. Long-term measures to get more vehicles off the road should also be considered.