The first anniversary of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau-Bridge – the world’s longest bridge-and-tunnel crossing – has just passed. Has it been a success? The short answer is that it depends whom you ask.
When the 55km link opened last October it was lauded for bringing Guangdong province and the special administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong closer together. A year on and the symbolism is still important: the anniversary was greeted in the mainland Chinese press with stories of faster travel times and new flows of people and goods.
In Hong Kong the feedback hasn’t been quite as fulsome. Most of the newspapers noted that the crossing is losing money, with traffic well below the original projections, even though it carried 14 million passengers. Daily passenger numbers have averaged about 50,000 and goods worth $8.4 billion have crossed the bridge as well. But predictions on the numbers of vehicles using the link have been way off the mark and toll fees of about Rmb300 million won’t have covered the bridge’s operating expenses, let alone the payback on Rmb120 billion of construction costs.
Yet planners for the project (which began construction in 2009) could hardly have anticipated the unrest in Hong Kong since the summer, which has been putting off visitors from mainland China. Arrivals via the bridge fell almost a quarter to about 500,000 people in September, or about half the flow in the first full month of operation. That’s a major reversal on the opening weeks, when there were protests in Tung Chung – the town closest to the bridge’s arrival point in Hong Kong – about the large numbers of day-trippers.
Now the search is on for ways to boost business. Truckers have been lobbying for reductions in paperwork and speedier boundary crossings. Allowing more private cars to cross the bridge would also get it closer to breakeven. Last week Hong Kong’s Transport Department said that 5,000 more dual-licence plates would be made available. Other changes will need to be made: drivers of private cars complain about needing permits from all three cities, for instance, as well as separate auto insurance policies.
Of course, what’s good for the bridge’s finances may not always be beneficial for local residents. City planners will be cautious about encouraging a major influx of vehicles as the streets of Hong Kong and Macau are already congested.
A more positive signal is a potential pick-up in numbers when Hong Kong’s airport opens a new transit terminal in 2022, allowing passengers to go through immigration and customs on the mainland and then jump onto buses that take them straight to departures in Hong Kong without further checks. Airport bosses estimate that at least 6,000 people a day could be channelled across the bridge in this fashion.
Before then there will need to be more of a plan to pump up the numbers. Another new bridge opened closer to the mouth of the Pearl River at Nansha in April; the cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai have announced plans for a new bridge of their own; and another major competitor will be crossing the estuary between Shenzhen and Zhongshan from 2024. Hong Kong’s bridge – the furthest south of the bunch – has a battle for business ahead.