Where are the vehicles for the mega sea bridge?

April 18, 2019 09:00
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge has seen vehicle usage remain at levels far below previous predictions made by the government. Photo: Reuters

Wang Qiming drives his taxi past Jiuzhou Port in Zhuhai almost every day and has a good view of the majestic bridge over the Pearl River to Hong Kong. “We drivers in Zhuhai are not allowed to use it. For us, it is as if it is not there. Why have a bridge if cars cannot drive on it?” he says.

Wang’s opinion is shared by many people in Zhuhai and Hong Kong. In February, 55,117 private cars and 3,429 goods vehicles used the bridge, compared to 45,000 and 7,020 respectively in January. Only 41,000 vehicles have cross-border licenses for Hong Kong and Guangdong.

Before the bridge opened in October 2018, the Hong Kong government predicted usage of 11,600-16,500 vehicles a day.

And the competition is heating up.

On April 2, the Nansha bridge across the Pearl River opened. It took five years to build and cost 11.2 billion yuan. It runs 12.9 kilometers, has eight lanes and is designed to handle 100,000 vehicles a day, compared to 80,000 a day on the existing Humen Bridge, downstream on the Pearl River.

Closer to Hong Kong is the Zhongshan-Shenzhen bridge, under construction and due for completion in 2024. The cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai have both announced plans for a bridge to the other.

According to a Zhuhai Special Economic Daily report on April 4, the Zhuhai city government plans to spend 57.6 billion yuan this year on 118 projects, including the bridge to Shenzhen. “A priority is to improve the transport network of the Greater Bay Area,” it said.

Wang said that if he needs to go to a city on the east side of the Pearl River, he would use the Humen or Nansha bridge or one of those under construction. “They are quicker and cheaper than the bridge to Hong Kong and you do not have to go through customs or immigration.”

So who is using the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau (HZM) bridge? The biggest winners have been the bus companies. Since HZM Bus launched its shuttle service on October 24, it has carried about 50,000 people a day; the journey takes 40 minutes and costs HS$58-63.

The passengers include Hong Kong and mainland people going to Macau to gamble and amuse themselves and mainlanders coming on trips to Hong Kong. The company has 162 buses, including 20 double-deckers, on the route.

Zhang Li, a stewardess on the HK-Zhuhai ferry, said the bridge had cut the number of their passengers. “The tourists are using the buses on the bridge. We are retaining regular passengers going to Hong Kong and Zhuhai to work. We have no plans to cut frequency of service.”

Use of the bridge by cargo companies has been small. This is not only because of the limited licenses available but also because of the need for insurance and other paperwork needed to travel in three jurisdictions, each with its own rules, procedures and tariff rules.

George Yeo, chairman of Kerry Logistics Network, said his company would wait for clarification before it decides whether to use the bridge. He said that there was very little cargo going across because the rules are not clearly settled with the customs authorities. Green customs lanes should be set up to aid cargo flow, and better intelligence would help prevent illegal activities, such as smuggling, he added.

For owners of private cars and taxis in the three places, the obstacle is obtaining a license. They are restricted to people with businesses in Guangdong and those in official positions. Hongkongers who buy a property in Zhuhai or Zhongshan do not receive one. The price of one on the black market is hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars.

The long-term plan of the three governments is to liberalize the issue of licenses. The problem is that neither Hong Kong nor Macau or Zhuhai or other cities on the west side of the Pearl River want more vehicles on already crowded streets.

According to the Zhuhai traffic police, nearly one million vehicles used the city’s streets during the three-day Qing Ming holiday (April 5-7) weekend, causing serious traffic jams. Many people cannot afford a property – but they can afford a car, a more modest way to enjoy their wealth.

Hong Kong paid more than 40 percent of the cost of HK$120 billion for the bridge. Its citizens are now asking this question: what are they getting for their money, other than an alternative and cheaper way to go to the casinos of Macau or the beaches of Zhuhai?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.