As the mainland media learnt that the lights on the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge would be turned on New Year’s Eve, some reported that it would open the next day.
No, not yet, replied the bridge office: there are still tests to run and arrangements of customs and health inspections to be finalized. But the structure is ready and the day of opening not far away.
The mega bridge is there for all to see while taking the ferry to Macau or Zhuhai. With a total length of 55 km, it is the longest and most technically difficult bridge in all of China. It is also the most expensive, estimated at more than US$17 billion.
For the 6.7-km underwater tunnel section, builders laid 33 sections of tunnel on the bed of the Pearl River, each weighing as much as an aircraft carrier, and joined them seamlessly.
It is an engineering marvel. But is it worth the pharaonic cost and will it be able to recoup the capital?
The first answers to this question came during a public hearing in Zhuhai on December 21 organized by the Guangdong Development and Reform Commission (GDRC). Officials said that they expect annual traffic flow of 21 million vehicle/journeys and annual income of 2.2 billion yuan over the first 30 years. They did not say when or if they would recover the investment cost.
Others at the hearing said that official projections of 65,000 vehicles a day using the bridge were too optimistic, given that there would be in future five bridges and tunnels that cross the Pearl River.
GDRC put forward two pricing plans. In both, private vehicles and taxis would pay 150 RMB to cross the bridge, cargo trucks 115 and ordinary trucks 60. Coaches would pay 200 RMB in one plan and 450 in the other.
Who will use the new bridge? On December 12, the HK Transport Department announced that it had agreed with the Guangdong government to increase the quota for HK cross-border private cars using the bridge from the 3,000 announced on August 25 to 10,000.
Applicants must meet one of the following criteria – HK enterprises with an accumulative tax amount of at least 100,000 RMB in Guangdong in the past three years: recognized national high-tech HK enterprises: HK residents who have donated at least five million RMB in Guangdong: HK residents who are members of the People’s Congress or Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference at national level or provincial, prefectural and county level in Guangdong.
There is also a quota of 300 private cars in the mainland. Currently, 28,000 vehicles in Hong Kong and 3,000 in Guangdong have cross-border licenses. They can also use the bridge.
It is bad news for taxi drivers and private vehicle owners in Zhuhai and other cities in the western Pearl River.
“We have watched it being built,” said Yang Li-ming, a Zhuhai cabbie. “But we will not be able to use it. We have been told nothing. It is irrelevant to us.”
Most passenger traffic will be in large tourist buses that will shuttle between two giant man-made islands, one outside Hong Kong airport and one offshore Macau, where people will alight and go through customs and immigration formalities. The authorities are likely to give permits to about a dozen tour companies to operate the route.
The man-made island offshore Macau opened on December 18. It has a built-up area of 658,000 square meters and parking spaces for 3,105 private cars and 2,054 electric motorcycles. The Hong Kong island has parking spaces for 650 vehicles.
Fang Zhou, chief research officer at the Hong Kong-based One Country Two Systems Research Institute, said that delays in the construction of the bridge had given cities in the PRD time to greatly develop their port capacity, resulting in a situation where many exporters in the delta no longer need to use Hong Kong.
“Other PRD bridges will offer lower tariffs than the new bridge, while existing cargo barges to Hong Kong are even cheaper,” he said. “In terms of time and convenience, the bridge is not so competitive.”
For Hong Kong residents who live in Kowloon or the New Territories, taking a ferry to Macau, 60 minutes, or Zhuhai, 70 minutes, may be quicker than travelling on the bridge. They can board a ferry at China Ferry Terminal or HK/Macao Ferry Terminal and arrive in the heart of the city; immigration is at each end and rapid. And there are no traffic jams on the Pearl River.
The strongest economic argument for the bridge is traffic to Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA). In 2016, it handled 4.52 million tons of air cargo, making it first in the world in cargo for the seventh consecutive year. Of this cargo, high-value items that must be shipped quickly account for less than 10 percent by volume but 40 percent by value. The main items are fresh food, flowers, fashion, electronic goods and pharmaceuticals.
The bridge will enable producers west of the Pearl River to move their goods to HKIA more rapidly. This will have a definite economic benefit.
Overall, then, the bridge is an engineering marvel, but how many years will it take to pay back the investment?
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