Passenger subsidies were increased, tunnel toll charges scrapped and ferries handed more public cash in an attempt by Hong Kong’s leader on Wednesday to woo the millions who rely on the city’s transport network.
But critics said Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had missed an opportunity to tackle the spiralling cost of public travel in her flagship speech on government initiatives.
Delivering her third policy address against the backdrop of escalating social unrest, Lam also directed support at students, who make up a large proportion of activists in the anti-government movement, which was sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
Lam said: “When fares for public transport services are adjusted due to increasing operational costs, the public also have to shoulder higher transport costs.
“We therefore propose to introduce three measures to alleviate the burden of transport expenses.”
They included raising the subsidy rate for a commuter’s monthly public transport expenses that exceed HK$400 from 25 per cent to about 33 per cent, with the cap on payments lifted from HK$300 to HK$400.
The improved measure, expected to take effect on January 1 next year, will cost the government HK$3.1 billion per year, up from HK$2.3 billion.
The scheme, introduced earlier this year for the benefit of about 2.2 million passengers, will also cover red minibuses and other coaches.
Toll fees at four tunnels will be waived at a cost to the government of HK$750 million a year. Covered in the scheme are the upcoming Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Link Subsea Tunnel and the Lantau Link from the end of next year, and the new Tseung Kwan O-Lam Tin and Tseung Kwan O underground routes from the end of 2021.
The administration will extend its support for ferry services to another eight routes, taking the total number of subsidised routes to 14, in support worth HK$260 million per year, up from HK$140 million.
It will also fork out HK$5.8 billion to buy 47 new vessels in two phases, including hybrid vessels, for 11 ferry routes from 2021 to 2028.
A government source said the subsidies would ease the plight of ferry companies, meaning fare rises could be contained at 4 per cent, rather than 30 per cent, as in the case of the existing six supported ferry routes for outlying islands.
The beleaguered MTR Corporation would also commence detailed planning and design for three rail lines – the Tung Chung Line Extension, Tuen Mun South Extension and Northern Link – in the coming year to support the development of new towns such as Tung Chung, policy address said.
Quentin Cheng Hin-kei, spokesman for commuter concern group Public Transport Research Team, said Lam was trying to win back public support with the relief measures, but he argued they would fail to ease the fare burden on passengers.
“The rising public fares are mainly due to an unfair fare-setting mechanism of MTR which guarantees a fare rise every year, which causes other transport operators to raise fares. The government is only skirting around the real issue,” he said.
Democratic Party’s legislator Lam Cheuk-ting also criticised Lam for barking up the wrong tree. “These sweeteners will not help ease the current the social crisis,” he said.
For education policies, Lam proposed expanding a one-off HK$2,500 subsidy for students, which was first announced in August, into an annual payment.
Some 900,000 students will benefit, costing the government an annual HK$2.3 billion.
A five-year pilot scheme costing HK$600 million is to be launched next year to provide subsidies for up to 1,000 students a year on postgraduate programmes taught at government-funded universities, with a cap of HK$120,000 per head.
UGC chairman Carlson Tong Ka-shing welcomed the initiative, saying it would “incentivise more meritorious local students to pursue further studies in the priority areas”.
Chairman of the Education Commission Tim Lui Tim-leung also said he was “pleased” to hear the new initiatives as he believed the government would “work closely with stakeholders when mapping out the implementation”.