Think of the greater good and back toll rises for cross-harbour and eastern tunnels, Hong Kong transport minister Frank Chan tells lawmakers
- Proposal to be presented at the legislature on January 23 in attempt to rebalance traffic between city’s three harbour crossings
Hong Kong’s transport chief has called on lawmakers to support the government’s proposed toll increases for two of the three cross-harbour tunnels to ease chronic congestion, saying they should set aside their differences in favour of the overall public interest.
Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan’s appeal on Friday came after officials abruptly announced the night before that they would present a proposal at the legislature on January 23 to raise fees for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and Eastern Harbour Tunnel.
Tolls for the privately run Western Harbour Tunnel would be lowered under the plan. Private cars would pay HK$40 (US$5.10) for the cross-harbour and eastern crossings – up from HK$20 and HK$25. Using the western route would cost HK$50, some HK$20 less than the current charge.
The initiative was unveiled in October’s policy speech by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, with the aim of rebalancing traffic.
The government has also proposed compensating the operator of the western tunnel for any losses incurred by the change until its franchise expires on August 1, 2023, capped at HK$1.8 billion. The new tolls would take effect from January 1, 2020.
But legislators on both sides of the city’s political divide hold doubts about the plan. While many have lauded what they called the government’s goodwill, many were also concerned about the potential effects of large-scale toll hikes on the two publicly run tunnels.
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Chan has stood firm on the proposal, refusing to make adjustments, and on Friday confirmed a non-binding motion would be moved in the Legislative Council.
He said if the motion was passed the government would table an amendment bill.
“Since this proposal involves a legislative amendment, a funding application and also finalising a deal with the Western Harbour Tunnel operator, we hope to confirm that we have the Legco support before we push ahead with the next step of our work,” the transport minister said on a radio programme.
He called on lawmakers to stop haggling over the hikes and focus on the bigger picture – that peak-hour traffic through the cross-harbour and eastern crossings could be cut by between 10 and 40 per cent, while travel time through the tunnels could be slashed by 13 minutes.
“At present there are different views about the tolls for these two tunnels. But I think it is too narrow-minded just to focus on the level of toll adjustments,” Chan said.
He argued the move could generate about HK$800 million in cost savings per year by clawing back 19,400 hours in daily commuting time among Hong Kong residents using public transport. Carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles could be cut by about 3,800 tonnes per year, the equivalent of planting 160,000 trees, he said.
“I hope Legco members will consider our proposal for the sake of the overall public interest,” he added.
Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun said he would support the plan as he did not want the issue of how to address chronic congestion to drag on, even if it meant car owners had to bite the bullet.
“The government has made it clear it won’t make any changes to the proposal. Either you take it or leave it. If Legco rejects it this time, the issue will be deferred indefinitely,” he said. “This is something I don’t want to see as society has suffered from this problem for too long.
“I think this is the only option to divert the tunnel traffic. Some people must bite the bullet. If private car owners think the toll burden is too heavy, they can switch to public transport.”
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Ben Chan Han-pan, of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said the party had not reached a decision on the proposal, but hoped the government would lower the proposed increases for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and eastern crossing.
“We are at a crossroads. If this proposal is rejected then the western tunnel could impose big toll hikes, further aggravating congestion at the other two crossings. But we still think the toll increases for the two public tunnels are too much,” he said.
“We hope the government will take into account the actual traffic situation brought about by the effect of the opening of the Central-Wan Chai Bypass.”
The long-awaited HK$36 billion bypass on Hong Kong Island, nearly a decade in the making, is set to open on January 20.