Cross-harbour tunnel tolls plan stalls as Hong Kong government makes face-saving U-turn
- Failure to gain majority backing, even among allies, forces climbdown
- Minister says plan itself will not be ditched, adding he will ramp up lobbying in coming months
A contentious bid by the government to drum up support in the legislature for revamping Hong Kong’s cross-harbour tunnel tolls was shelved on Tuesday in a face-saving U-turn because of strong political opposition.
The decision to withdraw a non-binding motion in support of the toll adjustment plan marked the second major climbdown by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s government in recent days, following the backlash over a change to the age threshold for elderly welfare payments.
Announcing the scrapping of the motion debate scheduled for Wednesday, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan admitted the government had failed to get enough support.
The toll plan was intended to ease congestion by raising fees at the publicly operated Cross-Harbour Tunnel and Eastern Harbour Tunnel while lowering them for the privately run Western Harbour Tunnel, which is currently underused because of its higher charges.
But Chan made it clear the plan itself would not be ditched. He would ramp up lobbying efforts in the next two months to get it past the Legislative Council, he said.
“We hope to have more time to fight for the support of lawmakers and to seek common ground,” he said. “Then we’ll push for the relevant work. I think this is a responsible way of doing things.”
The minister also ruled out lowering the proposed tolls for the two tunnels, saying the current proposal was the best option from a government consultant after a thorough analysis of different charges.
The new tolls, subject to legislative amendments and funding approval from the Finance Committee, would take effect from January 1, 2020.
Private cars would pay HK$40 (US$5.10) for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and Eastern Harbour Tunnel – up from HK$20 and HK$25. Using the western route would cost HK$50, HK$20 less than the current charge.
“The room for adjustment is almost zero,” Chan said. “But is there any room to reconcile our difference? This is our goal. [Withdrawing the motion] represents our respect for Legco members,” he said.
“If we lower the proposed tolls for Cross-Harbour Tunnel and Eastern Harbour Tunnel, it might cause more congestion at these two tunnels, which runs contrary to our intention.”
As well as easing jams, the plan is expected to encourage more people to take public transport, as the proposed adjustment will apply only to motorbikes, private cars and taxis. Franchised buses will be exempt from tunnel tolls, and other vehicles will continue to pay the same rates.
The difficulties of getting the plan past the legislature were clear by Tuesday.
Two of the government’s major allies, the Federation of Trade Unions and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which hold 18 seats in the 69-strong Legco between them, had already indicated they would not support the proposal.
The DAB’s Ben Chan Han-pan said the proposed increases were too high, and it remained questionable whether the plan could really ease traffic jams. He urged the government to reconsider the adjustment before putting it to the legislature.
“I hope the government will hold its horses before it’s too late,” Chan said. “Citizens are worried that this proposal may end up charging more and having no impact on congestion.”
But lawmaker and former rail boss Michael Tien Puk-sun said he would support the proposal when it returns to Legco, even though he expected it to fail there.
“If you don’t face the problem today, which has haunted Hong Kong for many years, you are just going to drag it on for another two to three years,” he said. “You have to deal with it sooner or later.”
Tien said the proposal was in line with the public interest as it would make it faster and less expensive to take public transport, adding that the government could wait for one or two months to better assess the effect brought about by the newly opened Central-Wan Chai Bypass on the three tunnels.
The bypass, which opened on Sunday, was supposed to smooth traffic flows from the western crossing so the tunnel could take more vehicles.