May 04, 2005

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Tunnels and the Reds at SCMP

After days of eager anticipation, Hong Kong's media were disappointed by the world's smartest people avoiding the predicted traffic chaos of the Cross-Harbour tunnel. But there was a promise of chaos to come: the apparent lull was due to the fact that many factories in China were still closed for the May Day holidays and heavy lorries and container trucks would not be back on the roads until next week.

The SCMP has spent days preparing for the chaos, only to be forced to run photos of free-running traffic and people using trains; a time line of yesterday's peak hours with the stunning news that at 9:15am there was "No congestion on Kowloon side"; reports the MTR and ferries all had significantly more passengers; school students got to their exams on time; and best of all an article rehashing the results of an economics professor's findings that the raised toll will cost the city money. Fumier effectively dealt with the professor's findings a few days back.

But that doesn't stop the SCMP. Today's loaded "Talkback" topic: "Is it reasonable for the tunnel company's profit to come at a cost to society?" Are they prepared for the answers? Why stop at the tunnel company? Is it reasonable for any company to profit at a cost to society? From now on, all companies should provide their products cost-free so society can benefit. I expect my subscription will soon be refunded as the SCMP becomes a free paper, thus avoiding profit at a cost to society. The SCMP: Hong Kong's bastion of anti-capitalism.

The SCMP also posts a woolly editorial (reproduced below the fold) under the headline "Solution must be found to tunnel problem". It ends with this: Common sense prevailed yesterday. But a long-term solution must still be found. Dare I say common sense could be the long-term solution, too? The editorial says The objective must be to secure control over toll prices at the three tunnels so that the traffic flow can be regulated. See, they're for renationalisation. They're not just anti-capitalist, they're Communists!

Do the editorial writers read Jake van der Kamp's Monitor column in their business pages? His article is also in full below but the key paragraph: What is it with this dilly-dallying about an obvious measure? [Ed. - raising the Cross-Harbour tunnel toll] It could be done with ease in 1999. It can be done now. Yes, Jake, but at a cost to society. Your paper would not approve.

Chris points out public transport has long been cheaper and as convenient as driving in this city. It's a shame that Hong Kong's commuters show common sense while the newspapers and Government have none.

Solution must be found to tunnel problem

The predicted cross-harbour traffic chaos, resulting from an increase in tolls for the Eastern Harbour Tunnel, did not materialise yesterday. It was a victory for common sense - and provides much food for thought.
But serious congestion will soon arise unless the pragmatic and responsible approach adopted by motorists yesterday can be sustained. And that is probably too much to hope for.

The nightmare scenario had been that vehicles would shun the eastern route and head in large numbers for the cheaper Cross-Harbour Tunnel on the first working day after the toll rise. This, it was feared, would bring traffic to a virtual standstill in the centre of the city. There were concerns that ambulances would not be able to respond promptly to emergency calls and that schoolchildren would be late for their exams.

The reality yesterday was very different. The number of vehicles using the Eastern Harbour Tunnel plunged, as had been expected. But there was no surge in traffic using the more central alternative. The Transport Department's website reported that conditions at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel were normal. Many motorists, alerted by government warnings to the likelihood of long delays, decided to start their journeys earlier or leave their cars at home. There were thousands of extra passengers on the MTR. Buses were busier than usual and extra trains were laid on to cope with the demand. There were fewer vehicles on the roads - and therefore less pollution.

A lesson to be learned from this commendable reaction to the threat of a cross-harbour crisis is that Hong Kong does not stop working when people leave their cars behind and use alternative means of transport. This is a positive development. It would be good if it happened every day.

It is, however, likely that motorists will start using the Cross-Harbour Tunnel in greater numbers once they realise that the congestion has not been as bad as anticipated. There is still a need to find a solution to the inability of the government to manage the traffic flow. The problem arises because the eastern and western harbour tunnels are both in private hands. The government was powerless to stop the owners of the eastern tunnel steeply increasing its tolls on Sunday.

Only the Cross-Harbour Tunnel is publicly owned. It is the most popular route and, if market forces prevailed, should be the most expensive. But due to political pressure, the government has kept tolls at this tunnel low. The result is a distortion of the traffic flow. The Cross-Harbour Tunnel is too popular - and terribly congested at peak times.

The government has put forward a wide range of alternative ways the problem could be dealt with. The objective must be to secure control over toll prices at the three tunnels so that the traffic flow can be regulated. This might involve an expensive buy-back of the two that are in private hands. A new company could be established that would own all three. These options would take quite a lot of time to implement. It has also been suggested that the government build a fourth cross-harbour tunnel. This is not a sensible option. The three that already exist are not used to capacity. We do not need a fourth.

Extending the franchises of the eastern and western tunnels, in return for lower tolls, is another option. But it would not provide a long-term solution, nor would offering concessions to drivers using the more expensive routes - although this might help in the short-term. The government may want to consider increasing the tolls at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel during peak hours while it considers the way ahead. It would have to overcome strong opposition from lawmakers. But the alternative is to sit back and wait for the predicted chaos to occur.

Common sense prevailed yesterday. But a long-term solution must still be found.

Jake van der Kamp's Monitor column

Government can raise toll and revenue by revisiting tunnel vision

"...the administration has pointed out the positive impact on traffic management of the proposed toll increase. It is expected that with the proposed CHT (Cross-Harbour Tunnel) toll increase, 10,000 private cars will be diverted to the Eastern Harbour Crossing and the Western Harbour Crossing per day. This will greatly relieve the traffic congestion in the vicinity of CHT"
Legislative Council paper

Ahem, yes, I did forget to mention one thing in quoting the excerpt above. That Legco paper was published in 1999. It dates back to the time the government resumed ownership of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and decided forthwith to double tolls for private cars to $20.

The paper was also forthright about another reason for it - "The administration's reason for the toll increase ... is to raise revenue."

Of course, the usual dissenting voices had their say in Legco, most of them the same people now protesting against the Eastern Harbour Crossing's toll increase, and with the same objections - it is too big an increase, the time is not right, it is unfair to the travelling public.

All of it was to no avail. The protests were brushed aside and the measure was approved.

We shall ignore the objective of raising revenue. The government has now pretty much balanced its books again and does not really need the money. But if raising tolls on the Cross-Harbour Tunnel made sense on traffic management grounds in 1999, it does so even more now.

With the eastern crossing's tolls now up to $25 a car, how can we rebalance use of the harbour tunnels so the one in the middle, the most heavily used one, is not pushed too far beyond overcapacity with severe implications for traffic jams on either side?

The government has given itself 12 options for achieving this, including such things as buying out the private ownership of the other two tunnels (much too costly), extending their franchise (not a bad idea), forcing the other two to lower their fares (legally impossible) and building another tunnel (straight out of Fantasyland).

But the most obvious solution, raising tolls on the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, the one tunnel the government owns outright, was given short shrift.

According to a government press release, Deputy Secretary for Environment, Transport and Works Annie Choi concedes that "an overall increase in Cross-Harbour Tunnel tolls is the most direct and effective way to curb traffic. But considerable opposition from users is expected and it would require amendments to the Road (Government) Regulations."

This has me scratching my head. Did "considerable opposition from users" stop the government from deciding to double the tolls in 1999?

Is there not an even greater traffic management reason for raising them now? Get on with things and make that amendment, Ms Choi.

And if you think there may be justice in protests that a higher toll on the Cross-Harbour Tunnel is unfair, here are two points to consider.

We shall leave tolls for goods vehicles and buses aside for the moment (although there is equally good reason why they should go up). Let us consider only cars, for which the starting toll was $5 in 1972.

Now look at the first chart. The blue line represents the actual toll since that time (I am not absolutely certain that there was no increase pre-1984. We are talking ancient history here). The red line shows what it would have been if that toll had kept pace with inflation. It would now be more than $34.

The second chart shows you that cars in Hong Kong are still a luxury for the rich. There are fewer than six of them on the road for every 100 people. For an economy as wealthy as ours you would ordinarily expect the ratio to be nearer that of the United States.

There are reasons why that ratio is what it is, but it still says that those who would bear the cost of higher car tolls could probably afford it.

What is it with this dilly-dallying about an obvious measure? It could be done with ease in 1999. It can be done now.

posted by Simon on 05.04.05 at 12:03 PM in the


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Hmm. A May Fourth Standstill in the tunnel would seem an ideal way to commemorate how far China has come since the original May Fourth Movement.

posted by: Joel on 05.04.05 at 12:50 PM [permalink]

Good point. The new May 4th movement is born!

posted by: Simon on 05.04.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

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