Insight | For now, the HKZMB is a white elephant

Paulo Barbosa

My first impression when arriving to the Macau port of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge was the disproportionate grandeur of the facility, with many empty corridors and large bare halls, reminding me of the Pac On Ferry Terminal. As usual, the public is not aware of the studies and traffic predictions that led to such an enormous facility. In modern Macau, the mantra is build it huge.

Around one hour later I would arrive to the Hong Kong Port. The entrance port there is much more convenient to cross by users, particularly those with reduced mobility. The facility seems to be smaller than here and only a straight line needs to be crossed from the exit of the buses, the border control and the exit on the Hong Kong side. The design is also much more tasteful, with a corrugated roof and the use of warmer materials, unlike the funereal white marble in Macau. 

This impression was corroborated by a letter I read later, sent by a bridge user to the South China Morning Post: “Regarding the bus passenger traffic, in the port area in Macau – where the facilities are clearly designed for thousands – the numbers could be counted in tens. Am I missing something? Was it just a quiet day or is this bridge one of the biggest and most expensive white elephants constructed in the history of mankind?” – Chris Stubbs wrote.

Similar to him, the second impression I got from crossing the bridge was the engineering marvel that is the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge at a reported cost of USD20 billion. Only a powerful country is capable of such an accomplishment, as noticeable by the endless torrent of tours of excited elderly that are now heading to Hong Kong full of patriotic fervor and who continuously take selfies.

But what are, for now, the practical effects of the billion-dollar bridge? Traffic remains low and during my crossing, I saw almost no private vehicles and only a few buses. Those busses carry the already mentioned tours that are flooding Lantau Island, once an idyllic spot in Hong Kong, with crowds being led by unlicensed mainland travel agents that are overwhelming the Tung Chung residents. They can kiss Lantau goodbye if this influx is combined with the government plan to create four islands close by.

For people coming from Macau and heading to downtown Hong Kong, the bridge location is not convenient. Arriving to Lantau, there is the need to board bus (A11) or a taxi (expensive ride) and travel almost another hour to reach Causeway Bay. On the other hand, adding the bridge and city bus tickets, it is still cheaper for a family with children to use the bridge rather than the ferry.  But the problem is that double the time is needed to reach central Hong Kong when compared to the ferry. This is why I think that the ferry will continue to be the most used option, particularly if ferry companies make a fare adjustment. 

The other acknowledgement is that there are many obvious uses for the bridge that are not being explored yet. The most obvious is to link Zhuhai and Macau directly to the Hong Kong airport, which stands just beside the bridge terminal. Bags over 20kg are not allowed in the bridge’s buses and that makes it unusable for long haul travelers. Another obvious use is cargo transport, which is practically not being done yet. Businesses could largely benefit from the fact that the bridge can cut travel time across the delta from several hours to around 45 minutes. 

I suppose the heavy Chinese bureaucracy – with high restrictions on the circulation of vehicles, quotas allocated per city and unexplained privileges – is stifling these obvious developments.  

The economic rationality of investment decision making must be questioned in this case. The bridge has a clear political agenda that far outweighs its economic benefits.

When the bridge opened, Bloomberg columnist David Flicking pointed out that there are several key barriers to the sort of integration apparently intended (ultimately leading to the obliteration of the SARs), such as distance, cost, legal differences and formal border checks.

Categories Opinion