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Tunnel saga comparable to Brexit

Editorial | Mary Ma Jan 23, 2019
The government's decision to withdraw its non-binding motion on a toll adjustment scheme to spread cross-harbor traffic more evenly among the three tunnels was more or less anticipated in wake of opposition from its main allies in the Legislature Council. The scheme seeking to raise tolls at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and Eastern Harbour Crossing by up to 100 percent for cars while lowering fees at the Western Harbour Crossing by about 28 percent was hatched without public consultation. It naturally took the government's political backers off-guard when the announcement was made. That the situation has been allowed to develop to this stage is baffling. Transport chief Frank Chan Fan insisted the toll deal with Western Harbour Crossing was reached as a result of direct communication between Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and the tunnel boss when both of them happened to be in Beijing at one stage. However, why is the deal absolutely non-renegotiable? Nobody in the administration has ever revealed how the terms of the deal were arrived at. Perhaps this is what happened. The government asked the Western tunnel operator to lower tolls. In return, the company demanded compensation for potential revenue losses. The government agreed, but capped the compensation at HK$1.8 billion. The tunnel firm wasn't satisfied, suggesting it may only agree to it if more vehicles were diverted to the Western Harbour Crossing to make up the shortfalls. So it ended with the proposal to substantially raise the tolls of the other two tunnels. And since the toll increases are part of the deal, the government can't scale them back. Could this have been the case? Probably - but it still doesn't answer the question of why it's impossible to engage in further discussions with the tunnel company. The development so far is similar to what's been happening recently with the Brexit deal. British Prime Minister Theresa May, insisting her Brexit deal was final, had been telling members of parliament there would either be no deal or no Brexit should they reject it. Since the MPs have rejected it, May will likely have to set foot in Brussels again to seek a breakthrough for the "backstop" arrangement over the Irish border, after clarifying what Tory ally, the Democratic Unionist Party, wants. Now that Lam's toll deal has been withdrawn, and the administration knows what worries its allies, the government is free to return to the negotiation table to cut a new deal. If money has never been a concern for officials - as exemplified in the latest offer to pay the elderly a new subsidy after cutting their dole - it may offer something similar to the tunnel operator to win its agreement to lower its toll further with additional compensation. Then, it may reduce the toll hikes, or even freeze the tolls of the other two tunnels at the current levels. Would the mathematical balance remain unchanged? To quote a familiar remark made by Lam and her predecessors - problems that can be solved by money aren't problems. There's obviously a degree of inconsistency that has to be explained.

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April 2019