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Deaths, delays and taxpayer dollars: Hong Kong becomes an ATM as Macau bridge costs spiral

From day one, the government has lied, dissembled and misled the public over the cost of building the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge bridge.

Now yet more money is being sought from the public coffers to pay for this project, which has involved a tragically high loss of life among construction workers, is likely to open at least two years late, and once it opens will be of dubious value as a link between the three centres.

Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge

The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge under construction. File photo: GovHK.

The latest news is that cost overruns for this project now require an additional HK$11.8 billion (RMB10 billion) for the main section of the bridge. According to most media reports this represents a 30 per cent cost increase. This is almost certainly nonsense because the true cost of the bridge is unknown, but all evidence available shows that it is way beyond the HK$30bn implied by this estimate.

Let’s therefore start at the beginning to try and disentangle the misleading and confusing information supplied by the Hong Kong government.

In 2008, when the agreement to construct the bridge was signed, the government told legislators that the cost of this project would be RMB37.73 billion (at the time this amounted to HK$42.87bn).

However, the official briefing did not quite say that. Instead it said that the cost to the three governments would only amount to RMB15.73bn, which is just 42 per cent of the total. The remaining 58 per cent was to come from bank loans totalling RMB22bn.

It was suggested that these loans, stretching over 35 years, would be repaid out of bridge tolls and that these same tolls would cover maintenance costs. All sorts of fancy traffic projections were offered that have subsequently been quietly withdrawn.

legco session

A legislative session. File Photo: LegCo.

Meanwhile all talk of loans has now faded into the background as it becomes increasingly clear that the whole cost of the bridge will have to be met by the three governments. Going back again to 2008, we find Hong Kong government officials initially telling legislators that the breakdown in costs would be: RMB7bn to be met by the Mainland, RMB6.75 by Hong Kong and almost RMB2bn coming from Macau.

Subsequently the proportion of these contributions was quietly revised without explanation. Under the new arrangement Hong Kong became the biggest contributor to the scheme, shouldering 50 per cent of the cost, followed by the Mainland’s 35 per cent and Macau’s 15 per cent.

What followed, was, to put it as politely as possible, even more confusing, as suddenly this became not just one project but a number of projects with separate costings for access roads and other parts which had previously been assumed to be included in the overall cost. Using the smoke and mirrors of the separate projects it became impossible to know what was included and what was not.

Hong Kong, Zhuhai macau bridge 2003

Officers of the Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau governments visiting Zhuhai and Macau in 2003. Photo: GovHK.

Since 2009 there has been no official statement providing an overall cost for the bridge, except to say that various factors have caused this cost to increase. All we actually know is how much money has been allocated via LegCo; this now amounts to some HK$110 billion, excluding the latest demand for more funds.

So, the question arises as to what that HK$110 billion tells us about the overall cost. Using the formula that Hong Kong is responsible for 50 per cent of the costs, does this mean that the total cost now stands at around HK$240 billion or, roughly speaking, five times the original estimate? But what about the loan element, which we are now hearing nothing about? If indeed that remains fixed at RMB22 billion, the real cost has risen six-fold.

However we do not know whether this is the case or not; it is only possible to be sure that the figure of HK$30bn, being bandied about as the total cost, is sheer nonsense.

Some legislators say that constant demands for more bridge funding make them feel as though they are operating an ATM machine, Macau’s more passive legislature is saying very little and the rubber stamp Mainland legislature, predictably, has nothing to say at all.

hk macau zuhai bridge

Construction site of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge. File photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

So, how much is this wretched bridge really going to cost and, equally important, given that there is only agreement for a very limited number of vehicles to use it, what actual purpose is it serving as a transport link — a link, incidentally, that will soon be competing with a rival scheme starting in Shenzhen.

This project was initiated by Donald Tsang when he was Chief Executive and even then it was pretty clear that the motive for this massive undertaking was primarily political and part of the process of drawing Hong Kong closer to the Mainland. The economics were always hazy and the fact that the alleged benefits of building the bridge could only be expressed in general terms suggested a lack of economic rationale.

Now the project has spiralled out of control, the economics make even less sense but the poor old taxpayer is still there picking up the tab.

Deaths, delays and taxpayer dollars: Hong Kong becomes an ATM as Macau bridge costs spiral