Tunnel Vision

I wonder if our Secretary for Transport and Housing, Frank Chan Fan, is having what we older columnists call a "senior moment". That means an episode where one forgets to do something, or repeats something for a second or even third time, forgetting that it has already been done.

I am referring to the recent launch of a consultation exercise on whether tolls for the three cross harbour vehicular tunnels should be adjusted to even out traffic flow. The tolls for private cars at the Western, Hung Hom and Eastern tunnels are respectively 65, 20 and 25 dollars at the moment, with a similar degree of disparity for other vehicles. Consequently, there is spare capacity at the first, while the third and – most severely – the second, are very congested, particularly at peak periods.

In theory, there is a perfectly good intellectual argument for leaving things as they are so that motorists have a choice of whatever service level they are prepared to pay for. Those who loath to waste time queueing and have the means will choose the western crossing because the extra cost is insignificant for them, while the more frugal will sacrifice their time to save money by using one of the other two. However the spillover effect on traffic using roads adjacent to the most congested tunnels is now so severe that there is a case for intervention.

We know from the many previous consultation exercises (how many have there been? I’ve lost count) what the options are. In simple terms, we need to increase tolls at the over-used tunnels and lower them at the one with spare capacity. However, that tunnel (the western one now; it used to be the eastern one when we only had two tunnels) is always in private hands at the material time. So the government would have to compensate the owner of the private tunnel for loss of income with some of the extra revenue generated from the others. And that is where the whole exercise invariably comes to a crashing halt, because it is too hard to reach agreement on fair compensation and get Legislative Council approval for implementation.

But if this analysis is wrong, and agreement can be reached and endorsed, then why do we need public consultation? What is to stop us from working out the numbers and just going ahead?

Instead of wasting everyone’s time with unnecessary consultation on something we already know the answers to, how about launching a serious public debate on three measures which would bring an immediate and substantial improvement to the traffic situation, the environment, and our reputation for welcoming competition.

Number one, set an absolute limit on the number of private cars we are prepared to allow on our roads. We know this is practicable – Singapore has already done it – and there are ways of preventing abuses. We would have to grandfather existing owners at least initially but longer term we could explore ways to reduce even the present number. Our public transport network is excellent, and should have priority for what will always be limited road space. The scheme would cost the government nothing, but it would require courage.

Number two, set a future date beyond which only electric vehicles (EVs) would be licensed. The initial phase this would apply only to private cars, but other categories could be included later. As an interim measure, restore the duty advantage electric and hybrid vehicles previously enjoyed. Why this enlightened first registration tax regime was reversed is a complete mystery.

Now various arguments have been advanced that because much of our electricity is at present generated through carbon-based energy then there is little difference in emission terms between EVs and those powered by internal combustion engines. This reasoning is fallacious as it ignores the fact that the world is actively exploring ways of generating power in more environmentally friendly ways. As award-winning Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in a letter to the Financial Times last week, "EVs together with zero-carbon electricity can deliver decarbonisation, while internal combustion engines cannot".

Other governments (including in the mainland) have already adopted this policy, it would bring both short and long term environmental advantages, and it would cost nothing to implement. It would require only courage.

Number three, amend our legislation to permit the operation of ride hailing aps such as Uber. Such a step would provide more choice for consumers, it would allow people to work part time in hours which suited them, and would make better use of resources. Such policies have been introduced in many places around the region – the mainland, Singapore, even less advanced economies like Vietnam to name but a few – but here in the world’s freest economy we remain beholden to the taxi cartel.

In short, I don’t think we need another superficial consultation exercise to reach a sensible conclusion on tunnel tolls. But we do urgently need a series of in-depth public debates on other transport issues of more significance.