HKZMB | A mega-project that will open to traffic tomorrow

The bridge meanders through the Pearl River Delta

Traffic jams are nothing new in China, and during national holidays the roads can get unbearably congested as millions travel across the country to be with family and friends.

“We were stuck in traffic for more than 15 hours during the last National Day holiday,” bus driver Xu Huiping said, gesturing to his colleague Li Zhiguang.

“Yes, a lot of cars and buses and a terrible traffic jam,” agreed Li.

“Given the choice, we’d take the bridge for sure,” Xu continued as Li nodded knowingly.

The bridge in question is the 55 kilometer long Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HKZMB). The new mega-project stretches across the waters of the Pearl River Delta and will open to traffic tomorrow. It connects three regions, each with their own social systems, economic structures and even languages.

Xu and Li are from two of these regions: Xu from Guangdong, and Li from Hong Kong. They have worked together at the same tour company for more than 20 years. Tourism was one of the first industries to really benefit from the increasing inter-connectivity that followed the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and Macau two years later. Two decades ago, however, the infrastructure just wasn’t not there to support such rapid growth.

“Back when I started in 1997, there was no bridge or highway,” said Xu. “It took more than four hours to get from Jiangmen to Hong Kong.” Li, too, remembers the convoluted routes of the past. “We had to take ferries across the water, and there were far fewer buses and cars on the road back then.”

It’s not surprising, then, that infrastructure across this relatively small, but heavily populated area is so important. What is now known as the Greater Bay Area includes Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong. It is home to more people than the entire U.K., has three of the biggest container ports in the world and a GDP larger than Australia’s.

The bridge will cut the once arduous journey from Zhuhai to Hong Kong to just half an hour, but this is just a piece of the puzzle. With high speed rail finally connecting Hong Kong to the mainland network and infrastructure projects in progress across the Pearl River Delta, this is about multiple mega-projects knitting together an entire region.

The departure channels in the Macau frontier inspection building

Despite China’s wealth of experience with projects of this scale, the HKZMB was not without its headaches. The tunnel was one of the biggest. It may seem odd to build a bridge across the sea only to have it dive beneath the surface for almost 7 kilometers, before emerging to continue over the water, but it was a necessary compromise.

“Part of the bridge crosses two of Guangzhou Port’s shipping lanes,” explained Li Jiang, a project manager with HKZMB Authority. “If we were to build a bridge above these lanes, it would have to be very wide and tall.” Compounding the problem, these shipping lanes pass right by Hong Kong airport. Any bridge tall enough to let ships pass would disrupt flight paths. “Building a tall bridge was not an option,” said Li. “This tunnel was our solution.” This compromise may have solved problems, but it also created challenges.

“Technically speaking, we were at a loss in terms of existing long sea bridge projects that we could learn from,” said Luo Dong, vice general project manager for the bridge’s Island and Tunnel Project. “The water conditions of the Pearl River Delta are so complicated. Building a bridge and tunnel system in this area was a real challenge.”

It is certainly a monumental structure. Made from enough steel to build 60 Eiffel Towers and enough concrete to construct 22 Chrysler Buildings, it can withstand magnitude 8 earthquakes and is even prepared for super typhoons. This is something built to last a century of service.

However, the difficulties were not just technical. A project of this size and scale had to  account for all kinds of environmental factors. One particular concern was the Chinese white dolphins that inhabit the delta. “We had to monitor the dolphins constantly during construction,” said Luo. “We also had to minimize noise that might disturb marine life and retrieve all the construction waste from the sea.”

These measures seem to have paid off. According to Xinhua, in eight years of construction, there was not a single report of a Chinese white dolphin death, nor any big losses to fish stocks that could be attributed to the project. MDT/Xinhua

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