Architectural marvel or municipal boondoggle: Ask any local about Pudong International Airport and you are bound to hear an earful. The airport, conceived a decade ago as a lynchpin in Shanghai's bid to develop a 21st century regional transport hub, sits on the eastern banks of Pudong, more than 40 kilometres from the city centre. First-phase capacity was built to 20 million passengers and 500,000 tonnes of cargo per annum. The price reached 13.5 billion yuan (about HK$12.6 billion). However, when the glass-enclosed French-designed terminal and Japanese-built runway were opened last October, few of the support facilities normally associated with an undertaking of this size were in place. Most importantly, promised transport links never materialised. That means finding the airport from Shanghai's city centre often involves a torturous car or bus ride of more than an hour on a rural highway - complete with traffic lights, cycling farmers, and police speed traps - before reaching its brief dedicated expressway. It can be slow grind during the daylight, and treacherous at night. On a ride back from the airport this week, one weary passenger saw a jackknifed lorry, a car wreck and a fender bender. Even with fares ordinarily rising above 150 yuan for a one-way trip, cab drivers wince at the prospect of driving there. 'It's just too far away and there are just too few customers,' said one. Taxi queues for passengers are known to reach five and six hours. The airlines agree. Few wanted to move their operational berths from cross-town Hongqiao International Airport, scotching plans to increase flights at Pudong beyond Hongqiao. Even after rehabilitation at Hongqiao started in May, it remained the airport of choice. Only 14 of 49 domestic and regional airlines serving Shanghai shifted a portion of their flights to Pudong, joining 15 international carriers that were forced to move. Of the 457 daily flights arriving and departing, 235 continue to use the old airport. That has meant Shanghai's gleaming hub is operating at less than 50 per cent of capacity. It is a bitter pill to swallow, especially since this year's interest rate payments on the 8.5 billion yuan debt secured to build the new facility will reach 200 million yuan, while depreciation will be booked at 460 million yuan. Nevertheless, said Xia Keqiang, chairman of Shanghai Airport Group, the municipal parent established two years ago to manage the city's airports, the government was pushing ahead to correct the problems. Leading Shanghai's investment portfolio this year are outlays for an enclosed highway that will gain passengers easier and safer access to the airport from next April, as well as development of a high-speed magnetic train to whisk passengers 35 km through Pudong's countryside at speeds approaching 500 kph. Construction will start next year and will be completed by 2003. Asked whether the launch of Pudong airport was municipal pride getting the better of municipal planning, Mr Xia replied absolutely not. He pointed out that Hongqiao airport, designed to serve 9.6 million passengers per year, was operating over capacity for more than five years. 'Time was tight and it didn't allow us to wait to complete a subway,' said Mr Xia, adding that in spite of the setbacks, the municipal airport company was moving full-steam ahead to build the regional aviation hub originally envisioned. A new runway and an express mail warehouse are on the drawing board and a second passenger terminal is under discussion. Mr Xia said passenger traffic at Shanghai's two airports since January was growing at a breakneck 22.76 per cent - well above last year's 6 per cent and 1998's 3 per cent - and is likely to top 16 million this year. If that keeps up, he said, it could help Pudong airport reach break-even point by 2002. Strong words for an airport that remains half-finished.