WITH just 65 days before Hong Kong reverts to the motherland, the Guangdong authorities are embarking on a concerted plan to stitch the territory and Macau into the infrastructure of southern China. By 2010 more than 25 expressways, criss-crossing Guangdong, are expected to be completed. They will not only provide better access to Hong Kong and Macau, but also improve communications between Guangdong and neighbouring provinces. Add to this associated expansion of the rail network, a replacement Guangzhou airport and new power stations, including a second nuclear plant at Daya Bay, and Guangdong is set for a massive infrastructure boom. Under the current ninth five-year plan, 90 billion yuan (about HK$83 billion) is earmarked for the construction of 16 expressways. This is equivalent to $18 billion a year, double the amount spent on new roads in Hong Kong. This is slightly more than the 250 billion yuan spent by the Guangdong authorities over the last 15 years on transport infrastructure. For Hong Kong it means a new Huanggang link at Shenzhen to relieve congestion at Lowu. Other key connections are the Guangzhou-Shenzhen expressway, the western corridor highway in Shenzhen and two new expressways between Guangzhou and Zhuhai. One will follow an easterly routing with the other taking a westerly course. Other projects are the Tiger Gate (Humen) and Lingdingyang bridges and five expressways: Huizhou-Shenzhen; Guangzhou-Qingyuan; Foshan-Kaiping; Guangzhou-Zhaoqing; and the 1,500 kilometre-long Guangdong section of China's new coastal highway. With Guangzhou as the hub the aim is to create a Pearl River Delta ring road, bonding the region with hundreds of kilometres of concrete and asphalt fanning out from the provincial capital. Future highway projects contained in subsequent plans reinforce this cohesive expansion. In the 10th five-year plan (2001-2005) six projects are proposed, mainly to provide direct links between the main cities in the province and help give better connections to Hong Kong and Macau. These include expressways between Guangzhou and Baiyun, Kaiping and Zhanjiang, Huizhou-Heyuan and Meizhou, Qingyuan and Shaoguan and Yangjiang-Zhuhai. Under the 11th five-year plan (2006-2010), the provincial government proposes to reinforce connections to neighbouring provinces with five main-road projects. These link Shaoguan and Pingshi in the north, Shantou with Fenshuiguan in the east, Zhaoqing with Wuzhou in Guangxi in the west and Zhanjiang with Hai'an and Suixigaoqiao in the south. The sheer volume of this work means the opportunities for consultants, financiers and road developers is huge, at least on the surface. With China keen to privatise, one of the biggest challenges facing developers is making the massive road projects stack up financially. Nobody can doubt the strategic need for the $16 billion Lingdingyang bridge between Hong Kong and Jinding, north of Zhuhai. But with traffic forecast at just 40,000 vehicles a day, the project is doomed to fail financially at least initially, according to some consultants. 'That amount of traffic warrants a dual single carriageway bridge, not the dual three-lane structure that is being proposed,' commented one engineering director. Detailed design work for the first section of the bridge from Jinding to Qi-Ao is nearing completion and preliminary plans are being prepared for the second stage from Qi-Ao to Neilingding Island. But the Chinese authorities want the Hong Kong Government to pay for the final section between Neilingding Island and the landfall near Lung Kwu Sheung Tan, north of Tuen Mun. Similarly, land purchase problems and the tendency to duplicate routes makes for a funding minefield. 'Once a toll road operator builds a highway, it is not unknown for local authorities to construct another expressway very close to the first road,' said one privatisation expert. 'Obviously if people have a choice between paying a toll and driving for free they are going to do the latter,' he said. The financial key to making toll roads worthwhile is the associated land development that is usually part of the project package. Despite these worries, Cheung Kong China Infrastructure, New World Infrastructure and Road King have already made major investments in private road projects, particularly in Guangdong. Cheung Kong recently agreed to invest in the 70 million yuan Chaolian bridge in Jiangmen, the third of five projects, worth 400 million yuan, it plans to carry out in the city. New World Infrastructure has invested cash in a 1.4-kilometre long bridge schemes in Zhaoqing. Silver Grant International Industries recently revealed how potentially lucrative road deals are with the claim that its newly acquired Shantou Que Shi Bridge will break even four years after it opens in January 1999. Managing director Gao Jianmin said the bridge will have an initial daily volume of 8,000 vehicles. This is expected to grow by 10 per cent a year. 'The toll road is expected to have turnover of 110 million yuan in its first year of operation,' said Mr Gao. He added that it was the first of several toll road investments planned by the company. These private investments have been backed up by share flotations by local authorities anxious to raise funds for their road projects. The issues have been moderately successful, especially as the current thinking appears to be against raising finance on the international bond market. 'Foreign financial institutions are considered to have become too greedy which is why the provincial authorities are trying the listing method of raising finance,' said one source. GZI Transport, part of Guangzhou Investment, which raised nearly $1 billion from a share sale earlier this year, announced it planned to spend $300 million to finance Guangzhou's second northern ring road. Guangdong Provincial Expressway Development Shareholding Company is also expected to launch a share issue later this year to finance a 105- kilometre highway from Dianbai to Zhanjiang. Hong Kong-based consultants, including Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick (SWK), Mouchel Asia, Parsons Brinckerhoff Asia and Wilbur Smith, have been swift to identify the opportunities created by these projects. 'We have had a fairly substantial income for four or five years from highway projects in China,' said Albert Cheung Chung-hoi, SWK director in charge of China. The firm was traffic consultant on the Kaiping-Guangzhou expressway that was listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange last August. This kind of specialist work - which also includes revenue projections, independent checking to ensure construction meets accepted standards and project auditing - offers more opportunities than straight forward design work. 'Bread and butter highway design can be easily handled, more cheaply, by local design bureaus,' said Mr Cheung. Mouchel director Malcolm Taylor agreed. 'There are more opportunities for Hong Kong consultants in this front-end type of work,' he said. Many locally based developers and global funding agencies appoint internationally experienced consultants to do independent financial and project engineering before they decide to go-ahead with schemes. Rail projects that have been proposed up to 2016 will help bind the Pearl River Delta into one cohesive area. Among the key schemes are an east-west Shenzhen route linking Yantian and Shekou ports and connecting with the Kowloon-Beijing railway, and a line from Guangzhou via Doumen to Macau, Zhuhai and Gaolan Island. A Deep Bay rail crossing has also been proposed to directly connect the western corridor rail project at Yuen Long with Shekou. One scheme that is still on the drawing board, even by 2016, is a Pearl Estuary rail crossing from Macau-Zhuhai to either Shekou or Tuen Mun. 'It's unlikely the amount of potential rail traffic demands such a link at the moment, but it can only be a matter of time before such a railway is built,' commented one engineer. 'Maybe that's in the plan for 2020,' he added.