Days of tunnel vision on tolls long over

Editorial | Mary Ma 7 Jan 2019

Thousands of people walked through the Central-Wan Chai Bypass for charity before the vehicular shortcut inundated by news of water seepages is opened to traffic in two weeks' time.

Some people grumbled that the air inside was stuffy, although operators boast of having installed the world's largest air purification system. Nonetheless, the air quality shouldn't be an issue as commuters would be passing it in cars - not on foot.

As for water seepages, the problems must have been fixed. Otherwise, transport czar Frank Chan Fan wouldn't have invited lawmakers to check it out during a tour last week.

Apparently, the 4-kilometer shortcut has been built to expectations, free of the kind of steel-bar scandal currently hitting Hung Hom Station of the Sha Tin-to-Central Link.

The public isn't only expecting the bypass, built at a cost of HK$36 billion, to be structurally sound but also to play a pivotal role in easing chronic congestion that nearly brings traffic to a standstill in the Central business district during morning and evening rush hours.

Better still, it's also the common wish for it to be used efficiently to smooth out harbor-crossing traffic that has been plaguing the city day in and day out. The concern is it might not be even given a chance - unless Chan and lawmakers can bridge differences over a proposal to change the tolls of the Hong Kong's three harbor crossings.

The transport secretary suggested last year the tolls of Eastern Harbour Crossing connecting Kwun Tong and Quarry Bay, and Cross-Harbour Tunnel between Hung Hom and Causeway Bay be jacked up 60 and 100 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, taxpayers will pay the operator of the privately-run Western Harbour Tunnel in exchange for the operator's agreement to lower tolls by 28 percent.

That's a draconian position held by Chan, and it would be really difficult for the public to support it unless he's willing to reduce the proposed toll hikes.

Chan should understand there is no way motorists travelling between Island East and Kowloon East, or vice-versa, would go all the way from the east to west - only to return to the east after crossing the harbor. This group of motorists would be hardest hit.

It can't be more obvious that Chan's threat to move in the Legislative Council a non-binding motion without any toll figure is intended to tie lawmakers - clearly not free-minded pan-democrats but government supporters - to solidify its supporters' position prior to tabling a formal bill.

It would be a pity if efforts to smooth out cross-harbor traffic are quashed outright due to differences over tolls. It would also be regrettable if the plan is passed as is, without considering the situation of the numerous vulnerable motorists.

With the technology available today, it should be feasible to introduce a flexible toll structure, so that various tolls are charged for different times of the day. The transport czar's "take it or leave it" attitude is never the way to do business.

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