Bridge traffic already running into problems
Integrating Hong Kong and the mainland is about bringing down barriers. The bridge that will link our city with Zhuhai and Macau will be a big part of that, but its success depends on large numbers of vehicles from both sides using it. Construction is well advanced, but it is clear that in the rush to get work under way, little thought was given to the complications of getting traffic onto it. Just five years before its scheduled opening, the most rudimentary of schemes, trialling of a cross-border permit at a single checkpoint, has seemingly stalled.
The ad hoc licence scheme was proposed in 2008 and supposed to be put to the test at Shenzhen Bay at the end of last year. But there are obvious hitches on both sides and co-ordinating meetings have barely sputtered to life. Just as they were to get underway last month, the head of the mainland delegation was named to take over from disgraced railways minister Liu Zhijun. As it will take some time for his replacement to get up to speed on the issues, progress is not likely before the end of the year at the earliest.
Clearly this is unsatisfactory considering how much will be spent. If the bridge is going to pay off, it has to be used by as much traffic as possible. Allowing a free flow across both sides of the border would immediately open the possibility of 7.4 million vehicles. But continuing gridlock in talks would mean that just 14,000 a day would turn onto the 73 billion yuan (HK$86.74 billion) structure.
The number is so low because cross-border plates for vehicles are a privilege. At present, they are available only to top officials and some politicians, big investors and those willing to pay a high price. Hong Kong wants such travel to be possible for anyone with a driving licence, but the lucrative illegal market maintained by licence brokers has meant reluctance on the mainland side to such an idea. With licences that should be free being traded for more than HK$700,000, there is much to gain from the current inertia.
Then there are the challenges on our side. Hong Kong officials say they are eager for the green light, but there are myriad unresolved problems. Leaving aside concerns about the competence of mainland drivers, there is the question of how many to allow on our congested roads. That we open our arms wide to tourists is one matter; flooding our streets with their cars is quite another.
Then there is the mainland driving on the opposite side of the road to Hong Kong and our vehicles being right-hand drive, road safety, vehicle road worthiness, fuel quality, emission controls, customs, immigration - the list goes on. These are complicated issues for Hong Kong to deal with, let alone to enforce on vehicles coming from elsewhere. We have got a legislative process with a tendency to move slowly. It has to be wondered whether thorough consideration to these essentials was given during the feasibility study for the bridge.
That is not to say that two-way traffic across the border is not possible. There is the model of what Britain and continental Europe did after the Channel Tunnel was opened in 1994 to follow. The circumstances are not the same, but a number of the challenges were dealt with. It proves that such links, with the right preparation, can be smoothly put in place.
A lot of financial and political capital has been put into the bridge. With work under way, there is no turning back. Whether it is justified or not is no longer at issue. Making sure as many vehicles as possible can use it when it opens has to be a matter of importance for governments on both sides of the border.