Opening at about the same time as the high-speed railway line between Hong Kong and Guangzhou last October (see WiC429), the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge was long-delayed and heavily over budget. Backers of the world’s longest bridge-and-tunnel crossing were still delighted by the linking up of the three jurisdictions in the Greater Bay Area: Guangdong province and the special administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong. But just over a year later, how has the 55km crossing been faring?
The short answer is that it depends whom you ask. In the mainland Chinese press the anniversary was greeted with stories of faster travel times and newer flows of people and goods. Much of the coverage concentrated on how the bridge has been bringing neighbouring cities closer together – with traffic in the inaugural year seen as a ‘foundation’ for future success, Daily passenger flows averaged about 50,000 and spiked to double that in peak periods. Goods worth $8.4 billion had crossed the bridge as well.
In Hong Kong the feedback hasn’t been quite as fulsome. Most of the newspapers have noted that the crossing is losing money, with traffic well below the original projections, even though it carried 14 million passengers. Daily flows of about 2,500 vehicles were well below the lowest of the forecasts in the feasibility studies and toll fees of about Rmb300 million ($42.59 million) won’t have covered the operating expenses, let alone the payback on more than Rmb120 billion of construction costs.
Of course, planners for the project (which began construction in 2009) could hardly have anticipated the unrest in Hong Kong since the summer, which has deterred some 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 from across the border.
Now the search is on for ways to boost business. Truckers are lobbying for reductions in paperwork and speedier boundary crossings. Allowing more private cars to cross the bridge would also get it closer to break-even. Last week Hong Kong’s Transport Department said that 5,000 more dual-licence plates would be made available and that private cars from the city will be allowed to travel on from Zhuhai to Shenzhen via eight designated checkpoints. Previously, they had to halt in Macau or Zhuhai.
Restrictions will probably need to be relaxed further for traffic to pick up meaningfully, with drivers of private cars complaining about needing permits from all three cities, as well as separate auto insurance policies. Yet what’s good for the bridge’s finances may not always be beneficial for local residents. The streets of Hong Kong and Macau are already congested, so city planners will be cautious about encouraging a major influx of vehicles.
At least there should be a pick-up in numbers when Hong Kong’s airport opens a new transit terminal in 2022, allowing passengers to go through mainland immigration and customs and then jump onto buses that take them straight to departures without further checks. Airport bosses estimate 6,000 people a day could be channelled across the bridge in this fashion.
But there will need to be more of a plan before then to pump up the numbers, especially as rival crossing lure traffic. A competing 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 bridge of their own; and another major competitor is set to cross the estuary between Shenzhen and Zhongshan from 2024. The latter is being built with an additional railway line and it won’t have vehicle quotas or immigration checks, because it runs between two mainland cities.
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