Bridge to Macau, Zhuhai offers benefits all round

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am

Hong Kong may only have a population of around 7 million but, 10 years after the handover, we should be accustomed to thinking of ourselves as part of the Pearl River Delta - with its population of 50 million. The city's future lies in closer ties with its hinterland, of which the delta region is the most significant area. Building a bridge linking Hong Kong with Macau and Zhuhai will be a big step towards integration with this vast regional economy.

Talks on the project have dragged on for years. The enthusiasm of Hong Kong and the central government for the bridge was apparently not shared by the Guangdong provincial authorities. Too often, Hong Kong and other cities in the delta region see themselves as rivals, not potential partners. However, in October, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was confident enough to include the bridge among the 10 key infrastructure projects he foreshadowed in his policy address as measures to foster economic growth. It now appears the government's negotiations with authorities in Macau and across the border have borne fruit.

It emerged yesterday from a preparatory meeting in Zhuhai for Hong Kong deputies of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that tendering for the bridge's construction could start soon. According to conference member and infrastructure tycoon Gordon Wu Ying-sheung, details of how to finance the project are being finalised and will be announced soon. Other people attending the meeting said planning for an express rail link connecting Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong, another of the 10 projects Mr Tsang spoke of in October, was on track, with construction due to start next year.

If confirmed, the developments will give a great boost to the city's integration with the rest of the delta region. Whatever its final alignment, the bridge will tie Hong Kong closer to western Guangdong. It will dramatically reduce the time it takes to travel between the city and the far side of the Pearl River. It seems Guangdong officials have, sensibly, taken the view that the region's economic pie is growing and its benefits big enough for all to share.

As Mr Tsang noted in his policy address, the project's scope and scale make its construction a complex undertaking. Sir Gordon said part of the link would be in a tunnel to avoid impeding marine traffic. Many difficult hurdles must, therefore, be overcome. Its financing, for example, must be fair and deliver equal benefits to all three sides. While Hong Kong has been more keen on building a bridge than either of its partners, it would not be reasonable for it to bear a disproportionate share of the costs.

The bridge and the express rail line will need efficient customs and immigration channels. Safety will need to be considered carefully. And for Hong Kong, the bridge's environmental impact on Lantau could be significant, given that the outlying island is its likeliest starting point.

A forest of skyscrapers has already sprung up in Tung Chung new town. Disneyland will expand and attract more mainland visitors. The number of passengers passing through the airport is growing every year. Planners, therefore, must take care to minimise the adverse impact on the island of building the bridge.

Still, all these issues can be overcome with proper planning and foresight. And the cross-delta bridge, once built, will benefit all sides.