Greater political will needed on Hong Kong cross-harbour tunnels
The toll rises at the Western Harbour Tunnel may not create as much a reaction as when fares go up on the trams and trains.
Many motorists and commuters shun the tunnel because of its hefty tolls anyway, but it does not mean the adjustments do not affect the public. For those who have little choice but to use the tunnel, the 6.7 per cent to 8.8 per cent increases, the second in 10 months and the 17th in two decades, are surely bad news.
The widening toll gap may also worsen the already severe congestion at the two other cross-harbour tunnels and make traffic rationalisation through such adjustments more difficult.
What upsets the public most is perhaps the lack of control over the increases at the tunnel. Under the so-called build-operate-transfer model, the Western Harbour Tunnel Company may raise charges without government approval. Similar to the previous 16 adjustments, the latest came after use of the tunnel again fell short of expectations. With the franchise still in force until 2023, users may well have to put up with more increases in the coming years.
Ironically, the charges for using the Eastern Harbour Tunnel and the centrally located Cross-Harbour Tunnel have not been revised for years. The imbalance is obvious.
Worse, the mechanism is limiting the flexibility of the government to rectify the problem. Officials are unable to lower the tolls for the underutilised Western Harbour Tunnel to attract motorists from the heavily congested ones.
Even though the government has the authority to raise the charges at the two other tunnels, the political opposition to such a move would be substantial. There is also no guarantee that congestion would be eased.
After rounds of consultancy studies, the government believes the best way forward is to consider traffic rationalisation through subsidising the use of the Western Harbour Tunnel, while raising the tolls at the other two cross-harbour tunnels, along with adjustments to geographically linked land tunnels in a holistic approach.
Reasonable as it sounds, the progress is as slow as the cross-harbour traffic during rush hour. Officials must demonstrate greater political will and speed up the review.
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