OH how we all mocked back in the early days of the Eastern Harbour Crossing! ''Trunk road a white elephant'', screamed the banner headlines this column was dying to write at the time. ''Secret tunnel under harbour''. We pointed gleefully at official incompetence as traffic continued to build up at the old Cross Harbour Tunnel and the new tunnel attracted less traffic than a side-street on Lantau Island. We giggled as the few brave motorists who ventured out in search of the new route wandered helplessly through the wilds of Shau Kei Wan, hopelessly misled by the inadequate sign-posting at the tunnel entrance. These days the smiles are rather fixed. Liberal Party members are finding themselves caught in traffic jams on the Island Eastern Corridor. And they want to know the reason why. Miriam Lau bluntly broke the taboo. She used the ''S'' word. ''Saturation'', she said. ''During peak hours''. Resulting in ''frequent congestion''. Haider Barma, the Secretary for Transport, was as factually pedestrian as the situation would permit. The EHC, he said, in the Government's inimitable acronym-speak, had experienced rapid traffic growth. From a daily average of 38,000 vehicles at the end of the first year it was now dealing with an average of 87,000. Inevitably, since the IEC was the main artery, it was getting crowded. Measures had been taken, he assured members. Traffic heading for the tunnel had been segregated into a separate lane. As recently as last week, new signs had been posted. (At this point Albert Chan walked into the chamber with a map, raising the possibility of some entertaining suggestions for further rerouting the tunnel traffic. But being from the grassroots United Democrats, and therefore apparently loath to admit to owning a car, he took no part in the debate). Ms Lau, however, was dissatisfied with Mr Barma's statement. The measures introduced on January 3, she said, had helped. But if they did not work, they would be a failure. The Secretary for Transport had to accept the logic of this argument. The long-term solution, he said, was the Western Harbour Crossing. This was a curious conceit, given the different directions in which traffic using the two tunnels is likely to be heading. But no one picked him up on it. Instead, Fred Li, of Meeting Point, a small ''l'' liberal group for the car-owning classes, made it clear why the Liberal Party had dominated the debate so far. ''I'm concerned about the Kwun Tong side, while Ms Lau is concerned about the Hong Kong side,'' he said. If this was a subtle dig at the Liberals' tendency to settle in smart up-market residences on Hong Kong Island, South Side resident Ronald Arculli wanted it clear to all that he, for one, did occasionally venture across the harbour and was not so rich hecould afford higher tunnel tolls. Would Mr Barma assure the House that measures to reduce congestion would not include toll increases, he ventured, with a smirk in the direction of Ms Lau? Mr Barma would not. James Tien is one of the few Liberal Party stalwarts (apart from the usually taciturn Allen Lee) to be based on Fred Li's side of the harbour. Whether it was to show he was richer than Mr Arculli, or out of a secret wish to keep his party-colleagues safely over the water, he chose the opposite line of attack. Why not raise tunnel fees, he asked, to relieve some of the congestion? Mr Barma was clearly amused. It was, he said, up to the tunnel companies to initiate a toll increase. Besides he had a feeling other members of the House might have difficulty in agreeing. One had a feeling he might be right.