Hong Kong built its reputation as a get-things-done hub for business; a place where smart entrepreneurs make quick decisions and bet millions of dollars on hunches. There are real advantages to that way of working; but not when it comes to multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects funded by taxpayers' money. Long before the first pile is driven, key facets should be explored and wrinkles, potential or otherwise, ironed out. Yet this does not seem to have happened with the bridge to link Hong Kong with the western side of the Pearl River Delta. The most fundamental aspect - ensuring that there will be enough vehicles using it to justify its construction - does not seem to have been properly thought through.
In pushing the scheme, the government said up to 20,000 vehicles would initially be using the bridge each day after it opens in 2016, rising to 60,000 by 2035. That sounds like fair justification for a project that will cost Hong Kong taxpayers 6.75 billion yuan (HK$7.73 billion) of the total 37.73 billion yuan price tag. But how such figures were arrived at are not clear given that 40,000 cars, buses and trucks in total are presently able to make such a trip. This will not change much unless tough registration and permit arrangements are altered. That does not seem like happening any time soon either on the Hong Kong or Guangdong side. The problem has nothing to do with logistics and financing; those were finalised in 2008 and work begins next year. Nor is it about unreasonably high expectations of driving abilities. The sticking point is that for all the talk of the need for integration and co-operation, neither fully welcomes the other.
Guangdong's government has made it near impossible for ordinary Hong Kong drivers to get cross-border registration; the minimum requirements are to be either a big investor or charity donor or to have political connections. Hong Kong similarly is not eager to have mainland-registered cars on its roads. Officially, the matter is one of Hong Kong driving on the left and mainland on the right - we only allow right-hand-drive vehicles if the Transport Department gives a waiver. But it is probably true that a large portion of the reticence lies in a lack of trust in the driving habits across the border. Lastly, there is the matter of our roads already being jammed by our own vehicles. These challenges will not easily be resolved. A registration system that is based on large investments cannot be scrapped overnight when each holder has tied up millions of yuan to obtain the right for a permit. Ensuring that mainland vehicles meet emissions standards involves inspections and manpower. Prejudices stemming from a tendency to look down on our cross-border cousins will not disappear overnight. We have to decide whether to allow traffic from the bridge into urban areas or make drivers park and get public transport.
Yet the benefits of being able to travel in 40 or so minutes by road to Macau and Zuhai are plain. Trade and tourism will be boosted and opportunities will be opened in a part of Guangdong that has largely missed the province's economic boom. And most importantly, two populations that have long eyed each other warily due to a lack of knowledge and understanding will move closer. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen placed the bridge high among his 10 major infrastructure projects to push our economy, putting it on a fast-track. Local jobs will be created and contracts won, but that is no excuse for not properly carrying out feasibility studies. It is clear that a lot more work needs to be done before there is a chance of the bridge being properly utilised.