Drivers will have to put up with at least three more years of jams in the Cross-Harbour Tunnel after the government shelved plans to redistribute traffic by adjusting the tolls.
Transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said yesterday the decision was based on the absence of a clear public consensus and unexpected changes in traffic figures for two of the three harbour tunnels.
A critic accused Cheung of lacking the political courage to introduce badly needed transport management policy.
But the minister said 2017 would be a better time to reconsider these plans when the government regained ownership of the Eastern Harbour Tunnel from the franchise operator.
It would also be the year a new waterfront bypass linking Wan Chai and Central will open, increasing the capacity of the Western Harbour Tunnel.
The decision follows public consultation on a 2010 report which suggested increasing tolls in the Hung Hom tunnel and reducing them in the eastern tunnel.
Tolls in the western tunnel would not have been affected as it could not have coped with extra traffic because of a bottleneck at its island end.
Polytechnic University transport specialist Dr Hung Wing-tat claimed the government was just looking for excuses not to act.
"If they plan to do it after 2017, it means they are not planning to do anything," he said. "We'll have another government by then."
Cheung said 106 submissions had been received on the three toll options given in the consultants' 2010 report.
Of eight district councils asked for their views, the Kwun Tong and Eastern councils opposed the scheme while the rest did not indicate a preference.
"We are mindful of the concern expressed in the local community," Cheung said. "We cannot turn a blind eye to objective facts and future impact."
Cheung also said changes in tunnel flow had occurred. Daily flow at the eastern tunnel rose to more than 72,000 last year.
If a further 5,000 vehicles were directed to it as planned, the flow would have been close to its capacity of 78,000.
At the same time, the number of vehicles in the Hung Hom tunnel dropped to 116,739, the lowest in 25 years, though it remained more than 30 per cent above the 78,000 capacity.
Cheung said the reduction in traffic was unexpected while officials believed it could be a result of "natural diversion" because drivers simply could not tolerate the congestion any longer.
Cheung denied that the consultants' report was a waste of money, although no figures were provided on how much the report cost. Hung said the excuses cited by the minister were not convincing, in particular the traffic changes registered last year in two of the tunnels.
He said the changes, of about one or two per cent, at the Hung Hom and eastern tunnels were just normal fluctuations.
"It's not even a trend. The changes are so minimal," he said.
Timothy Hau Doe-kwong, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's school of economics and finance, said the government could consider charging different amounts in the Hung Hom tunnel at peak and non-peak hours.
But from an economist's point of view, tolls at the Hung Hom tunnel should rise because of the excessive demand.
Meanwhile, Cheung pledged to consider a pilot scheme for electronic road charging to manage traffic in Central after completion of the bypass.
A government spokesman said public consultation on this scheme, already studied at least twice since the 1980s, could start in 2016.
Kerry Properties, controlled by the Kerry Group, controlling shareholder of this newspaper's publisher, SCMP Group, owns 15 per cent of the Western Harbour Tunnel Co, the tunnel's operator.