A challenge of riding the white elephant

Editorial | Mary Ma 30 Oct 2018

Underutilization of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge since its opening nearly a week ago is within expectations in view of the restrictions that only vehicles are permitted to use it.

Criticisms won't increase usage until the restrictions are lifted. But that's a political rather than a traffic-management issue.

For now, what Secretary for Transport Frank Chan Fan may do to stop people from decrying the multibillion-dollar bridge as a white elephant is to improve a situation that can only be helped by offering a lot more park-and-ride spaces in the short term, before ultimately removing the restrictions.

Scenes on Sunday of hundreds of home-bound commuters waiting for "golden buses" on the Hong Kong side were truly dramatic.

However, it would be unfair to blame the shuttle-service operator, who, one must admit, responded quickly to the sudden surge in demand. Understandably, there's bound to be a limit in the ability to cope with such an emergency situation.

The operator has since committed to deploying all double-deckers to provide the bridge service during daily peak periods - except this would mean the company won't have any to serve other routes that are equally demanding during the peak hours.

Critics may be tempted to ask for a fleet expansion, additional drivers and double-deckers. But would low demand for the rest of the day justify the cost without incurring losses?

Now that the mega bridge is open, the authorities can only do whatever is feasible to improve usage. The extremely low use by the logistics and cargo-handling sectors is a greater cause of concern than the Sunday incident.

If the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link is meant to provide an efficient alternative to transporting passengers, the world's longest sea bridge across the estuary is supposed to offer a direct route primarily for goods transportation - if economic benefits expected of the engineering marvel are to be realized.

That preference is evident in the toll structure. Lorries and container trucks using the bridge are charged 60 yuan (HK$68) and 115 yuan, while the toll for private cars is 150 yuan. Cross-border and shuttle buses are charged 200 and 300 yuan.

By comparison, tolls at Western Harbour Crossing are HK$70 for private cars, HK$105 for medium goods vehicles, and HK$135 for heavy trucks.

The tunnel's toll structure conforms with the commercial principle of charging users according to vehicle sizes, while the toll system of the mega bridge is clearly policy-driven - to make the facility as user-friendly as possible to the trades.

So far, bridge usage by trucks has been extremely low - averaging only 22 goods vehicles and six container trucks a day.

How could this not be a huge concern, given that Chan has said all 12,000 Hong Kong trucks carrying local and mainland licenses are permitted to use it from day one. Of course, he would lament the fact that less than 1 percent of those vehicles are doing so. Why?

The minister must find the answer - and quick!

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