A bridge-related accident and the resulting traffic chaos have exposed the lacunae in Hong Kong’s urban planning, particularly in relation to the Lantau area development.
On Friday, people found themselves cut off from Lantau and the International Airport as authorities closed a vital transport link after a barge collision triggered an alarm at the Kap Shui Mun Bridge.
As safety checks were conducted at the bridge, which along with the adjoining Tsing Ma Bridge constitutes the only direct road link between the airport and the city, traffic ground to a halt for more than two hours.
With rail operator MTR also forced to suspend its Airport Express services for a while and close a section of its Tung Chung line, tens of thousands of commuters and motorists were left stranded.
Some air passengers missed their flights, while people who landed in Hong Kong found themselves unable to get to the city on time.
The traffic chaos, meanwhile, prompted some airlines to delay their services, throwing travel schedules into disarray.
The Lantau Link, comprising the Kap Shui Mun and the Tsing Ma Bridge, was restored sometime around 10 pm after being shut from 7.40 pm. However, it took a long time for the vehicle gridlock on the highway to clear.
Government officials, meanwhile, were scrambling to assuage the public, saying that it was an unfortunate accident.
The barge which smashed into the Kap Shui Mun Bridge, triggering the alarm and prompting the closure of the Lantau Link, was said to be bearing a large structure that was beyond the permissible height.
Authorities are questioning the captain of the vessel after taking three people into custody amid an investigation into the accident.
While more explanations are likely in the coming days, the events have highlighted the bitter truth about Hong Kong’s over-reliance on one particular transport link between the airport and the city.
While additional ferry services can be roped in under contingency plans, it is unrealistic to expect that they can be a quick alternative to road and rail transport in case of a breakdown of the Lantau Link, as we saw late last week.
On Friday, the government called for some ferry services between Tung Chung and Tsuen Wan after the closure of the two bridges.
But the ferry operator could get its emergency service ready only by 10 pm, when the highway was already reopened.
Thus the contingency plan proved a failure, causing problems to many airline passengers.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on Saturday called a meeting of senior officials to discuss the traffic chaos incident, but the efforts seem to be more aimed at warding off public criticism rather than taking serious steps to prevent such gridlock in the future.
The Tsing Ma Bridge was opened 18 years ago to support Hong Kong’s new international airport which began commercial operations in July 1998.
Serving as the only direct link between the city and the airport, the bridge and its connecting facilities have come to occupy too big a role in the local transport network.
It is this over-reliance on a single link that is proving to be a threat to local transport security.
While the government is pushing the construction of an additional airport runway that will cost more than HK$100 billion, there is little sign that authorities are aware of the need for a comprehensive new urban planning initiative on infrastructure linking Lantau Island and Hong Kong city.
While a new tunnel is underway to connect Tuen Mun and Northern Lantau, a project that is expected to be completed by 2018, the venture is part of the HK-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge investment, rather than one that will serve as the second link to the airport.
The government had in the past admitted that the continued development of Northern Lantau could put pressure on the existing traffic infrastructure.
Authorities announced plans to build a new highway to connect Tuen Mun and Lantau, and extend the highway and railway southward to Hong Kong Island.
But so far it’s only the Tuen Mun-Lantau highway that is under construction, while the link between Hong Kong Island and Northern Lantau does not seem to be on the government’s priority list.
If the government had the vision and took decisions solely on the basis of what is good for the locals, rather than trying to please Beijing by focusing on faster transport links to the mainland, we could have perhaps avoided the traffic disaster that we saw on Friday.
Following the latest incident, can we expect the administration to sit up and take some action at least now?
Or is that too much to ask?
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