Trial crucial to get bridge traffic moving
The multibillion-dollar bridge linking Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau could be utilised at just half of its full capacity 20 years after it opens, if a pilot scheme to increase cross-border driving fails to take off.
And with fewer cars using the bridge, it could mean higher tolls for trucks and private cars than planned.
Construction of the HK$83 billion bridge is under way. Hong Kong's section will cost at least HK$48.5 billion. Zhuhai and Macau expect to complete their sections by 2016.
The Transport and Housing Bureau made the usage projection earlier, based on an existing licence system set up to allow a selected group of 24,000 Hongkongers and 2,000 mainlanders to drive between Hong Kong and Guangdong. The new pilot scheme is meant to ease these restrictions, and officials are counting on it to increase bridge traffic.
One month before the trial's first phase, allowing local five-seater cars to travel north on a seven-day permit, Hongkongers are protesting to try to stop it - and the second phase, which would bring mainland drivers here.
Critics fear mainland drivers, who are used to a different traffic system and are known for reckless driving, may pose a danger in Hong Kong.
Even without the opposition, the take-up rate of the trial's first phase seems to be on shaky ground. While the details have yet to be unveiled, people familiar with the plan say vehicles subject to car loan repayments and seven-seaters are ineligible for the cross-border licence.
The costs involved could also be formidable. Apart from an application fee of up to HK$500 for the temporary licence, drivers face miscellaneous expenses including insurance, car inspection fees and charges from institutes that guarantee the car crossing the border would be the same one returning home. Drivers will also have to pay HK$1,900 if they opt to take a course on the mainland's traffic rules and road network.
If the scheme fails, it could result in an underused bridge, and a possible increase in toll charges - which officials had predicted to be as low as HK$100 for private cars and about HK$200 for trucks.
Without an improved cross-border licence scheme, only 11,600 vehicles would be using the bridge at its opening in 2016, the bureau says. After 20 years, daily traffic would increase to only 42,450 vehicles - or half of the bridge's capacity.
If authorities charge only HK$100 for private cars - which now make up about three-fifths of total cross-border traffic - and HK$200 for trucks, income from the bridge would reach only about HK$27.6 billion in 20 years. That was compared to a construction bill of HK$83 billion - including a 22 billion yuan (HK$27.07 billion) loan which the governments of the three cities have to repay with interest in 35 years.
Zheng Tianxiang, a transport specialist at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, said unless Hong Kong gave up its status as an open economy, integration with the mainland was inevitable. 'Hong Kong used to oppose the individual traveller scheme as well, but that has proved crucial for the economy.'
The Hong Kong section of the bridge includes a link road of this length to the main bridge at the edge of Hong Kong's territorial waters