A bridge too far?
Almost every day, the papers bring us more news about the projected bridge between Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai. Although it may be years before construction begins, property agents report that prices in Zhuhai have already shot up. The other side of the coin, though, is that property prices in Hong Kong may drop.
Clearly, the bridge, if built, will have a major impact, both on Hong Kong and on the western side of the Pearl River Delta. No one knows what the total impact will be, on the economy, on society, on health, on transport and on the environment, and yet everyone is operating on the assumption that the bridge project will go ahead expeditiously now that the central government has given its blessing.
And yet, the government has not even conducted an environmental-impact assessment study. Although the specific landing point has not been decided, it will be somewhere in northwestern Lantau. That is where Hong Kong's last pristine coastline is located. And the waters off that area are the habitat of a prized but endangered species - pink dolphins.
Many people will argue that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, and if the pink dolphins become extinct, well, that is simply a price that you have to be willing to pay for progress. (Naturally, no one will bother to ask the dolphins if they are willing to pay the price or, indeed, if a bridge represents progress.)
Hong Kong will, no doubt, go ahead with an environmental-impact study. After all, it is required by law. And Guangdong province will do its own study. But, as Bill Barron, associate professor at the Centre of Urban Planning and Environmental Management at the University of Hong Kong points out, no one will have an overall picture. Each side will have only a partial picture. But that is not enough.
A bridge will certainly facilitate Hong Kong's integration with the Pearl River Delta. Presumably, it will also lead to rapid economic development of the western delta region, with predictable increases in population, industries and, of course, pollution.
How will those developments impact Hong Kong? At the very least, there will be a worsening of the air quality here.
And, as Sars has taught us, frequent travel will bring in its wake the danger of diseases spreading rapidly from Guangdong to Hong Kong. Are we going to take the temperature of everyone in every car coming into Hong Kong?
Before we rush headlong into this project, we should at least study other options. Instead of a bridge, would a tunnel not achieve the same goal? A tunnel will certainly be less damaging to the marine environment.
A train tunnel will also have less impact on Hong Kong's transport system. And it will be less likely to have to be closed during typhoons. Of course, a tunnel may cost more than a bridge, but perhaps it is worth the extra cost. No one seems to have given this option much study.
But Hong Kong has considerable experience in building tunnels, there being three cross-harbour tunnels for vehicular traffic and one for the Mass Transit Railway. We certainly have a great deal of tunnel expertise.
It is sad to discover that intelligent and concerned people, such as Professor Barron and Mei Ng, director of Friends of the Earth, have not been invited to express their views on the possible environmental impact of the proposed massive construction project.
It is time to cool Hong Kong's bridge fever and make a sober assessment of all the ramifications of the project. We don't want tunnel vision where a bridge is concerned.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator