Let government run Hong Kong's transport system

Albert Cheng says the plan to tweak cross-harbour tunnel tolls won't alleviate the jams, and advocates nationalising the transport system

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 February, 2013, 4:12am

Plans for toll rises to ease cross-harbour traffic congestion have been badly received, as expected. The fundamental principle of the three options is to raise charges for the popular Cross-Harbour Tunnel and reduce tolls for the Eastern Harbour Tunnel.

Once again, it shows that no matter how hard the chief executive and his administration try, they seem to lack the oomph to achieve their goals. If Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying wishes to redeem a bit of his dignity, he must resolve the perennial cross-harbour traffic problem.

No matter how you look at the three options proposed by the government, all are based on the principle of subsidising the operation of the eastern crossing with public money, ultimately benefiting the operators.

The consultation document has also painted an overly optimistic picture.

It states that one option will help reduce peak-hour queues by 40 per cent, or 4,100 cars per day. That seems rather impressive. Up to 120,000 cars use the central tunnel daily, yet its official capacity is 78,000 cars per day. Congestion is at its worst at peak times, meaning that even if the proposal could cut queues by 40 per cent on average, it still remains to be seen how much smoother the traffic flow would be.

About 70,000 cars use the eastern crossing per day - which is already 90 per cent of its capacity of 78,000 cars. So, diverting traffic from the central to the eastern crossing would probably mean clogging up the latter without resolving the jams at the former.

Finally, many people seem to forget that, during peak hours, the eastern crossing is already very congested, mainly because of poor transport infrastructure around the eastern district to help divert traffic.

Based on these facts, a more effective option would be to increase tolls for the central tunnel and reduce charges at the western crossing.

The Western Harbour Tunnel is designed for use by 180,000 vehicles, and at present only 60,000 pass through it every day. But, according to the government's consultation document, the daily capacity of the western crossing should be set at 55,000 cars because of congestion at connecting roads, particularly those in Central.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung portrays himself as someone who stands ready to defend government policies, but he has, in fact, made a mess of transport issues. Meanwhile, he's not doing so well with his housing portfolio, either.

I have always supported the idea of nationalising our mass transport system. Besides housing, transport takes up a big chunk of the daily expenses of the working class. This avoidable form of indirect taxation is an underlying cause of many social conflicts.

For a low-income family of four, the monthly rent for a public housing flat is around HK$2,000. But the total transport costs for the family could easily exceed that figure.

If the government is willing to build public flats to alleviate the housing burden for low-income families, it certainly can't be against its policy principles to use public funds to nationalise the major forms of mass transport. This is logical from both a policy and management point of view.

Back in July 2006, I suggested that the government should nationalise the then two rail companies, three bus companies and the eastern and western harbour tunnels. I pointed out that the "build-operate-transfer" transport infrastructure projects undertaken by private companies had failed to alleviate traffic congestion and lower transport costs.

"Operators of the Eastern Harbour Tunnel and Route No 3, for example, have raised tolls at will," I wrote. "So motorists keep using the Cross Harbour Tunnel and the Tuen Mun Highway, which remain as congested as ever."

Now, almost seven years later, things have only got worse.

Transport services should be available to the public at a reasonable price. In most parts of the world, these services are operated on a non-profit basis. Not only do they benefit the people, low transport costs help improve a city's competitiveness and boost its overall economic development.

If Leung really wants to maintain Hong Kong's stability and prosperity, he must tackle high transport costs and review the existing transport policy that benefits only a small group of conglomerates.

Every political leader wants to leave behind an inspiring legacy. Hong Kong has plenty of legacies. Before the handover, governor Murray MacLehose left behind a housing legacy, while governor Chris Patten left a glimpse of democratic hope.

And, as chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen set the foundation for the minimum wage to benefit the working class. If Leung could nationalise the mass transport system, it would be a legacy that shows his genuine desire to help the people of Hong Kong.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]