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The HK-Zhuhai-Macau bridge: An economic excuse for a political gamble?

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, unfortunately christened with only the bare initials HZMB, is a mammoth undertaking designed to link crucial parts of the region by 42km of concrete.

Once complete, it will provide an important road link between Hong Kong and Zhuhai, opening access to the greater Pearl River Delta region (PRD) while also connecting Macau and improving links between North Lantau and Tuen Mun. Originally budgeted at HK$130 billion and due for completion in 2016, the project has fallen behind schedule, and faced engineering issues and harsh criticism from environmentalists.

The plan is all part of the mainland’s efforts to further integrate Hong Kong with Guangdong, reducing travel time to Guangzhou to a “commutable” three hours.

Politicians believe that linking Hong Kong with comparatively underdeveloped Western Guangdong will promote investment through osmosis. The region has approximately three times the landmass of Eastern PRD with salaries around 50% less and, given that Hong Kong is cash-rich and land-poor, the prospect of cheap labour and real-estate could serve to promote investment in the Zhuhai area.

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Construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. File Photo: GovHK

The HZMB feasibility study projected that by 2035 traffic flow across the bridge will reach 35,700-49,200 vehicles per day, stretching to 0.86 of maximum capacity during peak hours.

Compared with the present cross-boundary traffic between Hong Kong and Guangdong, a daily average of 41,600, the figures would take a significant load from the current border crossings.

However, these are just projections and despite numerous concerns being raised at LegCo the Highways Department refuses to instate any kind of minimum traffic targets. It’s disappointing that they won’t commit to comparing results with their forecast.

Travel times are due to be cut significantly, in particular the HKSAR Government has stressed as an example the journey from Zhuhai to Hong Kong International Airport, which would be slashed from four hours to around 40 minutes. It is unclear exactly how they came to these figures but presumably travelling through sprawling urbania to exit the city hasn’t been accounted for.

And, with the growing predominance of Guangzhou’s airport, by 2035 Hong Kong may not be the departure point of choice anyway. These reduced times will provide direct cost benefits to users such as container lorries with a simple calculation necessary to work out savings on goods.

Further benefits are attributed to the saving of an individual’s time – something not quite so simple to account for. Still, the Feasibility Study has had a stab at it: RMB¥52.3 per hour for Hong Kongers.

Increased tourism should yield some indirect benefits with advocates pointing to the relationship between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. With efficient transport links, Hong Kong has become a destination of choice for many, and Shenzhen now accounts for 44% of all trade between Hong Kong and Guangdong.

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Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: GovHK.

Funding for the project is split between the three regions with each constituent in charge of the cost and development of local projects, for example border and immigration facilities, while the main bridge costs have been split in a ratio proportional to direct benefit.

The total amount of cash coughed up for the main bridge is just less than RMB15.7 billion (HK$16.3 billion) split between the Mainland, Macau and Hong Kong at 44%, 13% and 43% respectively. This contributes less than half of the total with the remainder being sourced through bank loans. Though the bridge is a non-profit project, extensive tolls will be charged to pay off this debt.

While the vehicles may be able to travel quickly to the borders, Hong Kong’s existing road network could struggle to cope with such an enormous increase. In areas which already have a tendency for backlogs, serious traffic jams would occur with a correlated rise in pollutants.

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File photo: HKFP.

Numerous concerns have been raised by angry Hong Kongers and environmental groups – in particular residents of Tuen Mun, who will have a dual carriageway pass through linking the Kong Sham highway with North Lantau, managed to squeeze a concession from the Highways Department with a slight alteration to the route.

Environmentalists object to the dredging techniques used to reclaim much of the land for these large infrastructure projects. The process contributes to water and noise pollution as well as directly reducing the area of suitable habitat for many species.

The Chinese White Dolphin has become something of a metaphor for Hong Kong’s develop-first, conserve-second attitude. A recent study into marine mammal populations conducted for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department found that they had almost disappeared from North Lantau – areas around the coast of Chek Lap Kok, Tung Chung and the Sha Chau islands had seen a dramatic drop.

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A Chinese white dolphin. File Photo: Gov HK.

As with all large projects, an Environmental Impact Study was completed but this was subject to a lengthy judicial review sought by an irate Tung Chung resident. Although the government later won on appeal, the hearings raised many questions about the methodology and due process of the study, namely the lack of a stand-alone environmental model.

Alternatives to the bridge are few and far between. Most would point to bolstering transportation links such as the existing boundary crossings and public transport. It’s true that high speed rail (XLR) will begin operation in late 2018 from West Kowloon, reducing the journey to Guangzhou to only 48 minutes – this would seem to somewhat invalidate the “Guangzhou commute” argument.

Connecting to present rail options down to Zhuhai could result in travel times of less than 2 hours. The problem is transporting large quantities of goods – even if this were to be done by rail, they would require further transport from the depot.

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Construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. File Photo: GovHK

The Government would like to attribute Zhuhai’s slower development, when compared with the rest of Guangdong, to a lack of foreign cash, but the disparity in outside investment between East and West PRD was only about 40% and 17% respectively as an average last decade. A difference to be sure, but perhaps not enough to sway the argument on that basis alone.

Hong Kong is still by far the largest provider of foreign investment into Guangdong but recently has diversified from manufacturing to services, property and infrastructure. The services industry has many requirements, such as a highly trained workforce, which aren’t arbitrarily transferable to a relatively underdeveloped region.

As Zhuhai is selling itself on the basis of cheap land and labour, the shift may not be in its favour. These attributes primarily attract manufacturers and exporters.

The view from much of Lantau is now scarred by this functional behemoth. It seems that little can stand in the way of Hong Kong’s development plans and, in this case, the figures put forward by the Government seem to support it.

As usual though, many residents feel their concerns have been ignored or appeased, brushed over by committees and minutes. The Government needs to have a robust system in place for monitoring the benefits of HZMB – getting residents to buy into another large infrastructure project on the basis of promises which aren’t held to account is irresponsible.

If the bridge doesn’t deliver, then many will wonder if this was just an economic excuse for a political gamble.

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The HK-Zhuhai-Macau bridge: An economic excuse for a political gamble?