Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge

Hong Kong’s bridge to Zhuhai to allow 7,000 extra cars to cross after ‘overwhelming’ demand for permits

Transport Department raises number of cross-border plates up for grabs to private drivers to 10,000, but stringent criteria for applicants remain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2017, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2017, 9:16pm

Transport chiefs on Tuesday more than trebled the number of private cars they will license to drive across the under-construction bridge from Hong Kong to the mainland, due to an “overwhelming response” from applicants for the first batch of permits.

The expansion from 3,000 to 10,000 permits – praised by legislators representing the transport and tourism sectors – came in the run-up to a hearing on the bridge’s tolls organised by the Guangdong government.

The multibillion-dollar Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2017, having been blighted by delays, fatal workplace accidents and budget overruns since the project kicked off in 2009. The date it will open to traffic is yet to be set.

Only people or companies with certain financial or political contributions on the mainland will get permits to cross it in private cars.

On Tuesday the Transport Department said the governments of Hong Kong and Guangdong province had increased the number of permits for Hong Kong private cars by 7,000, due to high demand after the first batch of 3,000 was announced on August 25.

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The permits’ scarcity had created a market for purported agents offering them for exorbitant fees, before applications opened on September 1. That prompted China Travel Service (CTS), the state-owned tour agency which handles applications for various permits issued by the mainland government, to post a warning on its official website saying it had not contracted any private agency for the business.

CTS also said it had called police to report illegal use of its name.

The Transport Department’s statement on Tuesday read: “In light of the overwhelming response, the two governments have decided to increase the quota for Hong Kong cross-boundary private cars by 7 000, bringing the quota for Hong Kong cross-boundary private cars to 10,000 before the commissioning of [the bridge].”

Once approved by the Guangdong Public Security Department, the cross-border car plates will allow Hong Kong private cars to use the bridge to reach Zhuhai and to drive on the mainland. Drivers will have to renew the licence – which pertains to a car rather than a driver – after five years.

Cars already carrying plates which get them across the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen will be allowed to use the bridge for two years on a trial basis.

The arrangements for using the bridge to drive from Hong Kong to its fellow Chinese special administrative region Macau have yet to be revealed.

The Transport Department said the restrictive criteria had not changed for the additional permits.

Hong Kong businesses which have paid more than 100,000 yuan tax to the Guangdong government over the past three years, or are recognised as a national hi-tech company, are eligible. So are Hong Kong residents who have donated more than 5 million yuan to charities in Guangdong or who are members of the province’s legislature or political advisory body.

The extra 7,000 permits were welcomed by industry leaders, some of whom said it still was not enough.

Stanley Tandon Lal Chaing, chairman of the Lok Ma Chau China-Hong Kong Freight Association, welcomed the permit expansion because “even 10,000 is not a big number for such a mega-bridge”.

Chaing said the quota should be boosted again to bring in more revenue for the bridge, which had cost “quite a remarkable amount of money”.

Frankie Yick Chi-ming, who represents the transport sector in the Legislative Council and chairs its transport panel, said 10,000 licences did not mean much compared a total of 600,000 private cars in Hong Kong.

Panel member and tourism sector legislator Yiu Si-wing said the additional permits were a response to demand from Hongkongers to live and do business in and around Zhuhai.

He said: “More and more Hongkongers are making business investments, buying houses and even retiring in the western part of the Pearl River Delta. Their demand for convenient transportation was partly reflected in the [attempts at reselling] the cross-border licences.”

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The boost in licence numbers came with the question of paying for the bridge still up in the air.

Guangdong officials aim to recoup construction and maintenance costs by charging private vehicles, taxis, trucks and buses running across the bridge after it opens to traffic. Even after getting the licence – which will cost HK$800 from CTS – private drivers will have to pay HK$150 each way to cross the bridge, under prices proposed by Guangdong officials. The government there will hold a public hearing on the fee next Thursday in Zhuhai.

But the cost of the bricks and mortar is yet to be confirmed, after the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge Authority – the mainland body overseeing the project – reported a 10 billion yuan (HK$11.8 billion) budget overrun to the Hong Kong government.

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The overspend came on the main section of the bridge, in mainland waters. But Hong Kong might yet have to foot 50.2 per cent of the excess, according to a document prepared by Legco’s secretariat in December 2008. The government has not tabled its request for extra cash to the legislature since the news broke on November 21.

Records on the project’s official website showed that Legco’s Finance Committee had approved more than HK$110 billion for the bridge and supporting projects.

The Transport and Housing Bureau admitted in September that fewer cars may use the bridge than it originally expected. Its 2008 projection had 9,200 to 14,000 rides per day soon after the bridge opened, of which about half were projected to be private vehicles.

The project has also been beset by tragedy. Since work began, 10 workers have died and more than 600 have been injured in 275 incidents.