Toll increases are never popular. In a price-sensitive city like Hong Kong, any step to charge more is likely to be greeted with a public outcry. In the case of the congested Cross-Harbour Tunnel, however, an increase to help ease the heavy traffic is perhaps justified. The government has proposed a toll cut at the private Eastern Harbour Tunnel to help divert drivers from the publicly owned Cross-Harbour Tunnel, with taxpayers making up the resulting loss of revenue. Controversial as it sounds, the strategy, in the absence of better solutions, appears worth trying after careful consideration.
The previous government aired a similar proposal after a consultancy study three years ago, but, as usual, transport officials sat on it without taking any action. Meanwhile, there are still long queues every day at the entrances to the government-run tunnel, so much so that they are treated as an unavoidable aspect of urban living. While the root of the problem is too many road users, uneven tolls at the three cross-harbour tunnels aggravate the situation. It is good that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has dusted off the proposal for public consultation later this year.
Convincing drivers to pay more for a quicker journey is not easy. The use of taxpayers' money to compensate for revenue loss by a private enterprise is highly controversial. So officials need to study carefully what vehicles to target in order to achieve the intended result. Otherwise, they risk being accused of boosting public revenue while colluding with business.
Traffic congestion has huge economic and environmental costs. Any easing will go a long way to save time and money in a business-conscious city where every second counts. Roadside pollution will also be reduced and air quality improved if the queues are shortened.
A rationalisation of the tunnel tolls is long overdue. The government should listen to the concerns expressed in the upcoming consultation and ensure the intended diversion of traffic can be achieved.