Will govt backtrack again on cross-harbour tunnel toll fee plan?

March 26, 2019 14:19
A file photo shows the West Kowloon entrance of the Western Harbour Crossing. Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other relevant government officials are set to address the media in relation to the toll adjustment proposal. Photo: HKEJ

There is a good chance that authorities will withdraw their proposal for adjustment of cross-harbour tunnel toll rates yet again, reports suggest.

The Hong Kong Economic Journal cited government sources as saying that the plan could be dropped before it is put up for discussion in the Legislative Council on Wednesday.

If the administration is unable to secure by Tuesday the backing of enough lawmakers to the toll fee revision, the non-binding motion that had been scheduled for tomorrow in the Legco will be pulled, according to the sources.

If that happens, it will mark the second time that the government will be walking back its plan for the tunnel toll fee hike.

In January, authorities withdrew a motion on the tunnel fee adjustment after several lawmakers voiced strong objections to the plan.

After that, they made some changes in the plan and sought to reintroduce it to the Legco.   

But even this attempt faces the prospect of failure.

If that indeed turns out to be the case, it will mark the first time that the Hong Kong government will be retracting the same proposal for a second time, HKEJ noted.

To improve traffic distribution among the three major undersea tunnels, namely Cross Harbour Tunnel (CHT), Eastern Harbour Crossing (EHC) and Western Harbour Crossing (WHC), the government has been planning to make some adjustments in the toll fee structure.

Under the plan, the toll for private cars using the WHC will be reduced to HK$50 from HK$70 at present, while the rates for CHT and EHC will go up to HK$40 from HK$20 and HK$25 respectively.

Hoping that the adjustment can make the privately run WHC to share the burden of the traffic assumed by CHT and EHC more effectively, the government had been ready table a motion for lawmakers to deliberate on the plan on Jan. 23, only to decide at the last minute to pull the plan.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan told the media at that time that the proposal has won support from the community, academics, professional bodies, the taxi trade and even some lawmakers, but lawmakers still had differences of opinion about the plan, making it unlikely that the motion would be passed.

Sources told HKEJ that the first retraction of the proposal was mainly because the government wanted the lawmakers to observe the traffic situation after the Central-Wan Chai Bypass opened; but the second time will be because lack of sufficient support.

Once the proposal is shelved on Wednesday, the government will not table it again before the expiry of the WHC franchise in 2023.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said in a media briefing before a regular Executive Council meeting Tuesday morning that she sees a low chance for the plan to receive enough support from Legco.

If the proposal is not backed by lawmakers and the plan is shelved, it should not be seen as the administration's authority getting undermined, she said.

Lam said Hong Kong's society faces many problems and that the government is trying to find solutions. If lawmakers can’t support the toll fee adjustment proposal, the administration has to respect the Legco's function of monitoring the government's work, she said.

Lam and other relevant government officials are set to meet with the media 3pm on Tuesday in relation to the interim report of the Shatin to Central Link inquiry commission, the toll adjustment proposal, and proposed amendments to Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance.

As of Monday, both the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU), the city's two largest pro-Beijing political parties, were still opposing the toll adjustment.

DAB lawmaker Ben Chan Han-pan, who chairs the Legco’s Panel on Transport, revealed that the party had initially been supportive of the concept of the proposal but changed its mind after finding that there were concerns in the districts about the re-introduced proposal being not good enough.

HKFTU lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, who is also an Executive Council member, said it would be very strange if the government retracts the proposal for the second time.

He called on the government to offer reasonable explanation on the potential decision.

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a senior lecturer at the department of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, believes a second retraction will substantially impact the administration's governance record, as the decision will raise questions as to whether authorities misjudged the situation and moved hastily.

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