SCMP Friday, November 17, 2000

Struggling tunnel to increase tolls


The price of going through the Western Harbour Tunnel by car is to rise by $5 to $35 next month. Concern groups warn the move - intended to reduce the operators' losses - could backfire and lead to heavier congestion at the other two cross-harbour tunnels.
The increases of up to one-third will see the fee for a motorcycle rise from $15 to $20, while double-decker buses will pay $70 - an increase of $15 - in the poorly used tunnel, which opened in 1997 at a cost of $7 billion and has run up a debt of more than $800 million.
About 45,000 vehicles use the Western Harbour Tunnel every day, compared with 121,000 for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and 74,000 for the Eastern Harbour Tunnel. Motorists pay $20 at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and $15 at the Eastern Harbour Tunnel.
The general manager of the Western Harbour Tunnel Company Ltd, Kenneth Pang Wai-hung, insisted yesterday that the decision to increase tolls, which it has been entitled to do since January last year, was not taken lightly.
He said the tunnel had been under-used because of lower tolls at the other two tunnels and had suffered from poor connecting roads and the economic downturn. As a result, its operating cash flow could not fully meet debt requirements.
"The company has introduced cost-rationalisation programmes which reduced running costs by 22 per cent since its tunnel opening. Other ways to stimulate traffic and revenue, such as toll reductions, were experimented with, but the results were not positive," Mr Pang said.
"In order to meet its debt requirements, regrettably we now have to increase our tunnel tolls. Considering the need to maximise revenue for the tunnel company, we're implementing only half of the toll increase we're entitled to [under its operating contract]."
Legislator Lau Chin-shek, spokesman for the Coalition to Monitor Public Transport and Utilities, said the rise went against the original policy objective of spreading traffic flow at the cross-harbour tunnels.
"The toll increase at the Western Harbour Tunnel may ultimately backfire because it will lead to even less traffic there and reduce the tunnel company's takings. It should instead reduce its toll as a means to lure more traffic flow and increase its income," he said.
Urban Taxi Drivers' Association Joint Committee spokesman Ng Kwok-hung said: "Fewer vehicles, including taxis, will be using the Western Harbour Tunnel because of the higher toll.
"More traffic will be pushed back to the other two tunnels, with most going to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel. It will mean longer queues at the entrance and hence reduce our hours of doing business."
Democrat legislator Andrew Cheng Kar-foo said it would create a domino effect on the other two cross-harbour tunnels, forcing them to raise their tolls too.
"The only way to break this vicious circle is to unify the three tunnels' tolls and put their proceeds into a pool which will then be given back to them according to their traffic flow," he said.
The Public Omnibus Operators' Association, whose members operate about 6,000 buses, said it was unhappy with the rise but was powerless to do anything. It could not say whether the toll rise would spell higher fares on services operating through the Western Harbour Tunnel.
Yesterday's announcement follows the submission of toll increase applications by the operators of Tai Lam Tunnel and Tate's Cairn Tunnel at the beginning of the month.