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Drive for tunnels shake-up wins Legco vote

Nickkita Lau

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Legislative Council has passed a non-binding motion pressing the government to address the traffic imbalance at the three cross-harbor tunnels, including a buyout of the less popular Eastern and Western crossings.

Transport and housing chief Eva Cheng Yu-wah told lawmakers yesterday the government will negotiate with CITIC Pacific on the buyback issue although its parent, CITIC Group, has stressed it is not the time to sell any of its assets. Cheng said this shows the buyout option is not a one-sided matter.

The government, she said, will not adopt the "take it when it is down" approach in dealing with the troubled conglomerate, which controls the majority and 35 percent of the Eastern and Western tunnels, respectively.

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"The appraisal and offer have to be made cautiously. If the offer is too high, it may generate collusion accusations. If the offer is too low, CITIC Pacific won't be able to justify to its shareholders," Cheng said.

The consultant commissioned by the government will study all options including an extension of franchises and a joint operation of the three tunnels. The government may begin negotiating with CITIC before the one-year study is completed.

The motion moved by Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong lawmaker Gary Chan Hak-han, and amended by Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Cheng Ka-foo, was passed by 36 votes to four with six abstentions.

Chan said traffic is so congested at the Hung Hom Cross-Harbour Tunnel that "one doesn't have to be [hurdler] Liu Xiang to outrun the cars."

Most lawmakers agreed the failure to effectively divert traffic flows between the three tunnels is due to the high tolls at the Eastern and Western crossings.

Lawmakers including Leung Yiu- chung, of the Neighbourhood and Workers Service Centre, and Wong Kwok-hing, of the Federation of Trade Unions, blamed the problem on the build, operate and transfer arrangement in which a developer is responsible to fund the construction of a project in exchange for the right to operate it for a specific period of time.

Independent Chim Pui-chung said heavy traffic not only means monetary loss to Hong Kong but also harms the city's reputation, brings psychological damage and affects commuters.

The government will finish consultation for the Central-Wan Chai bypass before the year ends and begin preliminary work on the project.


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