With more than two million trips by private cars registered at checkpoints, pressure is growing for transparency in licensing The number of cross-border trips made by private cars licensed in both Hong Kong and the mainland topped two million last year, prompting calls for the authorities to introduce a more transparent system of issuing licences. Critics say the issue of the licences, and that of quotas, should be put on the agenda of cross-border co-operation between Hong Kong and Guangdong. The calls come as the new Western Corridor linking Yuen Long and Shekou in Shenzhen, due to be completed in 2005, is expected to dramatically boost vehicular access. The Western Corridor checkpoint will have 50 lanes - 25 in each direction - allowing it to process 1,640 private cars an hour, or 10 million a year. Currently, three of the four existing border crossings - at Man Kam To, Lok Ma Chau and Shataukok - process private car trips. Last year, a total of 2,064,813 trips - or more than 5,650 a day - were made. The figures represented a rise of just over 22 per cent from 2001, when 1,685,889 trips, or about 4,619 a day, were made. In 2000, there were 1,419,865 crossings by private cars, or about 3,890 a day. Cross-border private vehicle flow is regulated by a licensing system agreed between Hong Kong and Guangdong. Applicants have to apply for a permit from the Guangdong Public Security Bureau before making a similar application to Hong Kong's Transport Department. While the latter issues licences on a first-come-first-served basis, it has not revealed the maximum number of licences it will issue or what criteria the mainland authorities employ in issuing their permits. But a cross-border transport operator said most of the mainland permits were issued to those with political connections and business people with investments on the mainland. He said he had heard that a permit could be bought for $200,000. Some property developers had also lured buyers of luxury mainland flats by advertising free cross-border private car licences as part of the deal. The Environment, Transport and Works Bureau in Hong Kong declined to say if it was reviewing the quota system to prepare for the opening of the Western Corridor. It also refused to disclose the quota agreed with mainland authorities but revealed that 9,716 permits had been issued by March. 'We monitor the operation of the quota system continuously and maintain regular dialogue with the mainland authorities to ensure cross-boundary traffic flows smoothly at all crossings,' the bureau said. 'We will adjust the quotas for each crossing as and when necessary. It is the consensus of both governments that priority should be accorded to freight vehicles.' Andrew Windebank, the chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Automobile Association, said the new border crossing would present a good chance to review the system. 'Hopefully we will one day reach the point that our transport links will be similar to that in Europe, where each nation state recognises the validity of the registration and licences of the others,' he said. Mr Windebank said he had heard about a black market for licences and agreed that the quota system should be more transparent. Anthony Yeh Gar-on, assistant director of the Centre of Urban Planning and Environment Management of the University of Hong Kong, said unrestricted driving to and from the mainland remained a distant wish. 'It is not just whether we have a big checkpoint, but also if the infrastructure can support the growth in traffic. Otherwise, it will lead to congestion both in Hong Kong and Shenzhen,' Professor Yeh said. Sammi Chow Hing-wong, secretary-general of the Hong Kong-Guangdong Cross Boundary Bus Association only supports a relaxation of the policy in phases. 'It should be carefully planned as it might bring other adverse impacts if it goes too fast,' he said. He warned that if the regulations were eased too rapidly it might encourage more property purchases on the mainland, lead to the loss of petrol duty revenue, and result in declining air quality.