Hong Kong legislators question transport bureau’s proposal for congestion levy to ease traffic jams at cross-harbour tunnels

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Hong Kong legislators and a concern group have demanded further explanation from transport officials on a proposed congestion charge to discourage private car owners from using the city’s three cross-harbour tunnels during rush hour.

In a paper submitted to the Legislative Council last week, the Transport and Housing Bureau said it planned to introduce a congestion levy for the morning and evening rush hours aimed at minimising toll differences at the three tunnels and alleviating heavy traffic between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

Commuters can cross underneath Victoria Harbour by using the privately owned Western Harbour Tunnel, the government-owned Eastern Harbour Tunnel or the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which is commonly known as the Hung Hom tunnel as it links Kowloon with Causeway Bay on the island side.

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Currently, a private car driver has to pay HK$75 (US$10) for a trip across the western tunnel, but only HK$25 and HK$20 for the eastern and Hung Hom tunnels, respectively. The cheaper fares for the latter two have been blamed for causing serious congestion during rush hour.

Western Harbour Tunnel. Photo: Yik Yeung-man
Western Harbour Tunnel. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

Lawmaker Nelson Lam Chi-yuen, who advises the bureau on the Transport Advisory Committee, told the Post that he was not sure how the proposal would help reduce traffic as all three tunnels were either overused or approaching full capacity during rush hour.

“I’m not sure if the government is trying to divert cars from the more congested tunnels to the western tunnel or reduce the tunnels’ traffic altogether,” he said.

“If we have a tunnel which has yet to become saturated, we might be able to divert traffic to it, but the western crossing is also reaching its maximum capacity during peak hours.”

The bureau also conceded in the paper that all three tunnels were either overused or reaching their capacity during peak hours.

The eastern and Hung Hom tunnels, both designed for 2,600 vehicles per hour each way, were being used by as many as 3,900 per hour or were at 146-150 per cent of capacity during rush hour last year. The congestion has led to queues spanning 1.3km to 2.6km on average each morning and in the evening, and it takes 15-25 minutes to travel through the tunnels – each about 2km long.

The less crowded western tunnel reached 98 per cent of its capacity between 7am and 10am last year, with up to 4,100 vehicles using the crossing. The tunnel’s hourly one-way limit is 4,200 vehicles.

The bureau found that the tunnels were being used inefficiently as more cars were travelling through them.

Fifty-nine per cent of the 92,900 vehicles that used the three tunnels during rush hour last year were private cars, up from 50 per cent in 2011. Yet, they only carried 18 per cent of the traffic flow of people, while buses transferred 80 per cent, despite only making up 8 per cent of the vehicle flow.

To tackle congestion, the bureau proposed adding a three-tiered system to the vehicle-based toll regime with cheaper fares for off-peak hours between 10pm and 7am, a congestion levy to target less efficient users such as private cars during peak hours and a general fee for the rest of the day.

The bureau did not suggest specific fares for the three tiers. Neither did it reveal a concrete timetable for implementing the proposal, saying it could only do so once the government took back ownership of the western tunnel next year. The franchise will expire in August 2023.

Senior officials are expected to attend Legco’s transport panel meeting on Friday to explain the proposal.

Lawmaker Ben Chan Han-pan, a former chairman of the panel, said he agreed with the government’s proposal for a congestion fee to discourage the use of private cars, but authorities needed to explain on Friday if the plan would be supported by other measures.

“We also need more facilities to encourage park-and-ride,” he added, referring to car parks near suburban train stations or bus interchanges for residents to drive to and then change to public transport to reach the city centre.

In 2018, city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor proposed tackling tunnel congestion by reducing the western crossing’s private car toll from the then HK$70 to HK$50, while increasing the fares for the other two crossings to HK$40.

But the proposal was withdrawn from Legco the following year amid opposition from across the political spectrum, as lawmakers said the toll increases for the two public tunnels were too high.

Chan’s party colleague, Hong Kong Island West lawmaker Chan Hok-fung who is also a member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, noted that the increased toll applied all day under the 2018 proposal.

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“This time the government should be more flexible. I know that the western tunnel’s northbound lanes are congested during rush hour, those drivers can be charged HK$75, but for the non-congested southbound lanes, drivers should only pay HK$40 to HK$50, and even less during off-peak hours,” he said.

Ringo Lee Yiu-pui, president of the Hong Kong Automobile Association, opposed the congestion levy proposal.

“If the charge is set too low, it will be ineffective. But if it’s set too high, it’s like punishing the car owners,” he said.

Transport sector lawmaker Frankie Yick Chi-ming, chairman of Legco’s transport panel, said he supported the government’s proposal.

“I don’t think it’s a punishment for car owners. Many companies nowadays allow flexible working hours or working from home,” he said. “Drivers and society as a whole will also save time and benefit from smoother traffic.”

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