Tunnel vision needed to fix the jams

Editorial | 15 Nov 2017

The government is finally showing us how it's planning to deal with cross- harbor traffic that has caused splitting headaches for such a long time.

Transport chief Frank Chan Fan's idea is straightforward - divert vehicular traffic from overutilized to underutilized tunnels. A similar idea had been floated before, but was deemed infeasible due to a shortage of supporting roads on Hong Kong Island.

Chan is now telling the Legislative Council that tolls for the Cross-Harbor Tunnel connecting Hung Hom and Causeway Bay, as well as the Lion Rock Tunnel that feeds traffic to the heavily- used CHT, should be increased to make them more expensive in order to adjust traffic flows.

At the same time, the administration proposes to pay the operator of Western Harbor Crossing certain subsidies, in exchange for the latter's consent to reduce tunnel fees to make the facility more attractive to motorists.

There are three tunnels across the harbor, of which the crossing is the only one in franchise operation running until 2023.

Chan's proposal is sensible because, by the time negotiations with the Western Harbor Tunnel Company - a joint venture in which CITIC and Kerry Properties hold substantial stakes - are expected to be concluded, construction of the vital Central-Wan Chai Bypass will be completed and opened to traffic.

Any move to channel traffic to the western crossing before the new road is ready will only aggravate what's already a serious congestion situation in Central.

Of the three cross-harbor tunnels, the western crossing operates at up to 90 percent of capacity during weekday peak periods - the only one with spare capacity.

Meanwhile, the other two - CHT and eastern crossing -exceed their capacities by nearly 80 percent and 40 percent.

The western tunnel's 10-percentage- point margin may not be huge, but it's the only cushion available to Chan in the immediate future.

There has been suggestion a fourth crossing may be needed, since more people will live in the New Territories and cross the harbor to work. While whether a fourth one is needed is a matter for long- term planning, it also depends on how successful Kowloon East can transform itself into a second business hub.

If successful, it would make the need for a new crossing less urgent, as more people will work on the Kowloon side.

After all, what's most pressing is to alleviate the congestion.

Negotiations with the western crossing operators should start early, because nobody should expect the talks to be smooth sailing. First, the operator is bound to table large demands to maximize gains, which is understandable. But the government isn't obliged to fully give in.

What matters is the formula calculating the exact amount of subsidies would have to be based on fair principles.

Then, there's the political sensitivities involved in negotiating, as it involves subsidizing a commercial operation.

Although it would be a good public cause, it will be imprudent to underestimate the possible backlash.

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