As key meeting looms, HK transport officials do ‘everything they can’ to win Legco support for cross-harbour toll increases

23-Jan-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Transport officials are making a last-ditch effort to get lawmakers to support proposed toll increases intended to ease congestion at Hong Kong’s cross-harbour tunnels, ahead of a key legislature meeting on Wednesday that would decide the plan’s fate.

But Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan admitted on Tuesday that the pro-government side was at an “evident disadvantage” in the Legislative Council, with two of the government’s major allies already indicating they would not support the proposal.

The plan to raise tolls at the publicly operated Cross Harbour Tunnel and Eastern Harbour Tunnel and lower fees for the privately run Western Harbour Tunnel is aimed at easing the notorious congestion at the first two crossings.

It is also expected to encourage more people to take public transport, as the proposed adjustment will apply only to motorcycles, private cars and taxis, while franchised buses will be exempt from tunnel tolls, and other vehicles will continue to pay the same rates as before the adjustment.

The new tolls, if endorsed by the legislature, would take effect from January 1, 2020, but the plan has so far encountered vehement opposition from drivers.

Speaking on a radio programme on Tuesday, Chan said transport officials had called individual lawmakers on Monday to discuss the proposal.

“If you count the number of votes, we are at an evident disadvantage,” he said. “But we will do everything we can to persuade lawmakers.”

Chan noted the benefits of public transport, citing buses as an example, which accounted for 14 per cent of vehicle flow at one tunnel but 86 per cent of passenger capacity. In comparison, private cars accounted for less than 2 per cent of capacity, he said.

The minister added that most Hongkongers took public transport, while only one in 10 drove private cars.

Chan warned that if the plan failed to pass Legco, the government might shelve it until August 2023, when the franchise of the western crossing expires.

Under the proposal, private cars would pay HK$40 (US$5.10) for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and Eastern Harbour Tunnel up from HK$20 and HK$25. Using the western route would cost HK$50, HK$20 less than the current charge.

However, two of the government’s major allies, the Federation of Trade Unions and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which hold 18 seats in the 69-strong Legco between them, have already indicated they will not support the proposal.

The DAB’s Chan Han-pan said the proposed increases were too high, and it remained questionable whether the plan could really ease the traffic jams. He urged the government to reconsider the adjustment before putting it forward to the legislature.

“I hope the government will hold its horses before it’s too late,” Chan said. “Citizens are worried that this proposal may end up charging more and having no impact on congestion.”

But lawmaker and former rail boss Michael Tien Puk-sun said he would support the proposal, even though he expected it would fail to pass in Legco.

“If you don’t face the problem today, which has haunted Hong Kong for many years, you are just going to drag it on for another two to three years,” he said. “You have to deal with it sooner or later.”

Tien said the proposal was in line with public interest as it would make it faster and less expensive to take public transport.

The Central-Wan Chai Bypass, which opened on Saturday, was supposed to smooth traffic flows from the western crossing so the tunnel could take in more vehicles.

But on Monday, congestion was observed at the western tunnel, throwing the effectiveness of the proposed toll increases into doubt.

Frank Chan said citizens would need time to get used to any major infrastructure project. He added that the final stage of the bypass would be completed in a month, and at that time the effectiveness of the project would really show.

Speaking before an Executive Council meeting on Tuesday morning, acting chief executive Matthew Cheung Kin-chung admitted to “teething issues” with the bypass.

But he said the Transport Department had put up new signboards to provide clearer indications and that “things have already been improving”.


Category: Hong Kong

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