China’s road to nowhere on a bridge over troubled waters
Setbacks plague 50km mega bridge linking Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai, which continues to sit idle as maintenance costs soar and opening date delayed
No less than one million yuan (US$145,000) a day of Chinese taxpayers’ money has been spent this year on a 50-kilometer bridge that appears to be plagued with problems and years from opening.
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge authority has been saddled with the hefty outlay on daily maintenance of the mega bridge, while wondering when cars, coaches and container lorries can start plying the sea-crossing shortcut that took eight years and a grand total of 76.2 billion yuan to build.
The maintenance cost include minor repair work like periodical anti-corrosion coatings and replacing waterproof adhesive dressings inside a tunnel area, as well as the salaries for staff and contracted workers, according to an official with the bridge authority based in the city of Zhuhai in Guangdong province. He added that the figure was “on the conservative side” as more work is required during the summer typhoon season.
Traffic has been hard to spot on the empty bridge hailed as a wonder of modern engineering, which also includes two artificial islands where the bridge snakes beneath the water in a 6,648-meter tunnel under one of the world’s busiest waterways.
Previous reports suggested the grand opening had been rescheduled to August, yet it appears that will be missed, again.
The official put the blame on delays and cost overruns of feeder lines at the Hong Kong end as well as red tape and shambolic management by the city’s Highways Department.
The bridge is believed to be Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “pet project” to implement the newly coined Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area concept. It was Xi’s brainchild to join the two former European colonies and the affluent Pearl River Delta in Guangdong into an economic dynamo to take on San Francisco, Tokyo and New York.
Yet Beijing has long frowned on the fact that construction has been stuck in the slow lane and it has been suggested that it was Xi’s wish to ride the bridge in his limo from Hong Kong to Zhuhai and Macau to officially open it to traffic on the 20th anniversary of the city’s return from London to Beijing in July 2017.
Yet apparently Xi’s hopes went down the tubes as the president only had a few glimpses of the silhouette of the bridge through the billowing dust at a construction site at the Hong Kong end during his inspection last year.
Back then Xi was assured that the work would be completed for commissioning by the end of 2017 to avoid holding back the bridge’s much awaited opening. Yet more than one year later the backlog of work is still progressing at a snail’s pace.
The Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily News revealed earlier this week that completion of a supporting tunnel project linking the bridge to the city’s New Territories would not be up and running until 2020 at the earliest and the opening of another bridge feeder line to the existing road network had also been postponed to 2019.
As a stop-gap measure, traffic on and off the bridge would be diverted via an alternative road network on the nearby Hong Kong airport island, exacerbating the clogged roads serving the busy aviation hub and a neighboring new town.
Meanwhile, Chinese state media hype about the bridge was also marred by a string of scandals and suspected construction flaws ranging from collapsing seawalls and tetrapods meant to protect the bridge’s artificial islands to severe seepage problems inside a major immigration hall on another sinking manmade island in Hong Kong waters.
The prospect of recouping the bridge’s staggering investment is becoming murky as well, with a limited number of cars and trucks issued with special permits to use the bridge, on top of forecasts about slackening growth in usage because the bourgeoning Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen is revving up construction of its Shenzhen-Zhongshan link that may lure away a big chunk of traffic.
Shenzhen was denied having a landing point of its own when Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai discussed the design and layout of the bridge 10 years ago.