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March 30th, 2008:

High Levy A Poor Excuse For Delaying Electronic Toll

Updated on Mar 30, 2008 – South China Morning Post

Any road scheme that can reduce traffic and air pollution is bound to enjoy extensive support. Survey after survey has shown people are prepared to support tough measures – and pay for them – to improve the environment.

A report by the Council for Sustainable Development, for example, recommends electronic road pricing. Before its release last month, the council received an unprecedented 80,000 written responses, an overwhelming majority of which either supported or did not object to such a scheme.

Yet transport officials insist time and again on attaching add-on conditions before any such scheme can even be considered. They give the impression that they have other agendas, or simply don’t want it. The latest instance is a new, unpublished official study which repeats the government’s contention that electronic road pricing in Central would only work after the building of the Wan Chai-Central bypass. Without the bypass, a charge of up to HK$90 would have to be levied to cut road use by 20 per cent, it contends. This would drop to HK$40 with a bypass.

It seems the projected high levy is reason enough for officials to put off implementing the electronic scheme as a standalone measure. But construction of the bypass has been thrown into doubt after a High Court judge ruled this month that a temporary reclamation for the project required the same stringent test of overriding public interest as permanent reclamation. Even if construction ultimately goes ahead, the bypass will take until 2015 or 2016 to complete. So expect more delay to any road pricing scheme.

In the real world, a high levy may actually be a plus for the scheme. It will have little impact on reducing traffic if prices are kept too low. What is important is that the levy is not seen as a tax. Revenue should be returned to the system. An effective way would be to use the proceeds to equalise charges between the three main tunnels. This would help redistribute traffic by reducing usage of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and increasing it for the Western and Eastern tunnels. Road pricing should be introduced as soon as practicable – it can always be modified if and when the bypass is built.