Date
6 December 2016
Engineering challenges aside, whether there will be enough traffic is another major uncertainty facing the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. Photo: HKEJ
Engineering challenges aside, whether there will be enough traffic is another major uncertainty facing the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. Photo: HKEJ

Dark clouds over bridge to Macau and Zhuhai

At the end of September, the company building the link from Hong Kong to Zhuhai and Macau announced with much fanfare the completion of the 22.9-kilometer bridge and said it should open for traffic at the end of 2017.

The bridge is a major component of the project that runs 55 kilometres across the Pearl River and is the longest bridge in the world crossing the sea.

The cost is 38.1 billion yuan (US$5.62 billion), of which the mainland government is providing 7 billion yuan, the Hong Kong government 6.75 billion yuan and the Macau government 1.98 billion yuan; the rest is bank loans.

But dark clouds hang over the project, both engineering and financial.

The engineering challenges are substantial.

In addition to the bridge, there will be 6.7 km. of tunnels built under sea water that is subject to strong currents and typhoons during the summer.

One problem is that part of the artificial island being built next to Hong Kong International Airport has moved because the seabed is hard to stabilise.

Dragages Hong Kong is boring two 4.2-km two-lane road tunnels under the sea between Tuen Mun and the artificial island.

It cannot complete the work until the reclamation is stable.

The other big question mark is who will use the new bridge.

The three governments involved have not started detailed negotiations on which vehicles will be allowed to use it.

Hong Kong and Macau want to restrict severely the number and kind of vehicles that enter their small and crowded territories.

Only a limited number of Hong Kong vehicles with Guangdong number plates are allowed to enter the mainland. Such plates are expensive and hard to obtain.

So enormous man-made islands are being built at either end; vehicles will stop there and unload cargo and passengers who will transfer to cars with the necessary permits.

The one at the Zhuhai/Macau end has been completed; the 150-hectare island at the Hong Kong end is under construction.

So why should passengers use the bridge?

Currently, they can board a ferry in Macau, Zhuhai or Zhongshan and reach the ferry terminals in Sheung Wan or Tsim Sha Tsui in 60-70 minutes with no traffic jam.

They pass through immigration and customs at both ends. Both terminals are conveniently placed in the center of the city.

Once the bridge is open, they will board a bus that will take them to the man-made island at the other end, disembark with their luggage, go through immigration and customs and board a bus or taxi for their onward journey.

While the ride over the bridge will take 30 minutes, it will take more than double that to reach their destination, depending on traffic. So the door-to-door journey time may be the same or even longer.

There is also a question mark over the cargo. The bridge was first proposed in 1983, when Hong Kong had the finest sea and airport in China that could offer an unrivalled service to mainland manufacturers.

The Zhuhai government carried out a feasibility study in 1992, but the colonial government opposed the idea.

After the handover, the State Council approved the idea at the end of 1997 but it was torpedoed by the Asian financial crisis. Construction began finally in December 2009.

This long delay means that the bridge has lost the economic opportunity it would have had 10-20 years ago. Until 2004, Hong Kong was the top container port in the world.

But last year, it had slipped to fifth position, behind Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen and Ningbo/Zhoushan. Guangzhou ranked seventh.

The cities of southern China have rushed to build world-class sea and airports with global connections; for many mainland manufacturers, it is simpler and cheaper to export through them than through Hong Kong.

Another negative is a new bridge over the Pearl River between Shenzhen and Zhongshan that is under construction and due to be completed in 2023. Its price will be lower than that of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge.

If you live on the west side of the Pearl River, in Heshan, Jiangmen or Zhongshan, and want to go to Hong Kong, you can cross the river by the Zhongshan Shenzhen bridge and then go to Hong Kong from Shenzhen.

Users will not have to go through customs and immigration. It will be simpler and cheaper than going via the HK Zhuhai bridge. This may also apply to cargo if you are sending it to the seaport of Hong Kong.

So the taxpayers of Hong Kong may well wonder if they will ever see a return on their investment in this giant project and ask what practical benefits it will bring to them.

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RT/RA

Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

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