Total tunnel control could lead to dynamic – and more expensive – tunnel fees

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On July 11, upon the expiry of the franchise, the government took over the Tate’s Cairn Tunnel that links the New Territories and Kowloon. With five tunnels in its hands now, the Hong Kong government may be able to push forward its plan to divert traffic.

Traffic congestion has long been a problem for commuters. Last November, the government mulled over rationalising traffic distribution through increases and decreases of tolls of three road harbour crossings and three land tunnels.

They are Cross Harbour Tunnel, Eastern Harbour Crossing, Western Harbour Crossing, Lion Rock Tunnel, Tate’s Cairn Tunnel and Eagle’s Nest and Shatin Heights Tunnel. Five of them are now in the government’s hands. The exception is the Western Harbour Crossing, which is operated by Western Harbour Tunnel Company Limited. The franchise will expire in 2023.

Busier than ever

Four out of these six tunnels have already been carrying more vehicles than they were designed for, resulting in long traffic queues on their connecting roads.

According to a paper submitted by the government to the LegCo, the Cross Harbour Tunnel and the Eastern Harbour Crossing already exceeded their respective design capacities by 77 percent and 38 percent, while Lion Rock Tunnel and Tate’s Cairn Tunnel also exceeded theirs by 35 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

On the other hand, weekday morning peak-hour traffic demand for the Western Harbour Crossing is about 90 percent of its design capacity.

As such, the government intends to influence the choice of motorists through raising and lowering the tolls of the tunnels.

Adjusting tolls

The Western Harbour Crossing is the most expensive tunnel. Under the current franchise agreement, the Western Harbour Tunnel Company Limited is entitled to increase the statutory tolls without seeking government approval. In May, the company raised its toll for the 17th time, by 8.8 percent.

The price hike could put a burden on the other two tunnels, especially the Cross Harbour Tunnel, the cheapest in Hong Kong.

The government is in talks with the company about providing subsidies from the public coffers, so as to lower actual tolls payable by motorists using the tunnel. It also intends to make Cross Harbour Tunnel more expensive.

“To effectively divert the traffic of Cross Harbour Tunnel without inducing additional traffic demand, it is necessary to suitably increase the tolls of Cross Harbour Tunnel, while reducing the tolls of their alternative tunnels at the same time,” the government says in the paper.

However, it stresses that the toll adjustment proposals should cover all the six tunnels in a holistic manner, as the traffic volume of the three road harbour crossings will affect the usage of the three land tunnels, and vice versa.

But action comes slowly, says Hung Wing-tat, a board member of the Hong Kong Society for Transportation Studies.

“To date, the government hasn’t initiated any consultation on this plan. It also took back Eastern Harbour Crossing from a franchise company last year, but it hasn’t raised or lowered tolls yet,” Mr Hung says.

Other possibilities

He does not expect the government to implement any plans in the short run, but suggests electronic road pricing to lessen traffic congestion.

His suggestion echoes with those recommended by the Transport Advisory Committee of the LegCo.

Other recommendations include managing the private car fleet size by raising the first registration tax and annual license fee and “fuel levy” for diesel private cars, using limited road space efficiently by planning for a congestion charging pilot scheme and increasing meter parking charges, as well as stepping up penalty and enforcement of traffic offences.

Local think tank Public Transport Research Team also points out diverting traffic is not the ultimate solution to traffic congestion, but reducing the number of private cars.

“It has to do with a holistic traffic planning that encourages the use of public transportation,” the team says.

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