Hong Kong’s construction rush: critical infrastructure or white elephants with political agenda?

  • Two mega projects, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, opened last year, and six more are on the way. But how much does the city need them?
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2019, 8:05am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2019, 11:53am

IT manager Dennis Leung remembers his punishing daily commute from his home in the southern part of Hong Kong Island to his workplace in Wan Chai just three years ago.

It took up to an hour because of unpredictable traffic jams around the Aberdeen Tunnel that links to Causeway Bay. He knew his bosses did not like it when he turned up late.

“It also created trouble when I had social events to attend,” the 60-year-old recalled. “When I am always late, I am upset too.”

All that changed with the opening of the MTR’s South Island Line in late 2016. His travel time was slashed to about 15 minutes, with no more fuming in congestion.

“I am happy about the convenience,” he said. “We suffered for so long.”

The South Island Line, which cost HK$16.9 billion (US$2.15 billion) and took five years to build, is by most commuters’ accounts a success and a mega project they welcome.

But when it comes to several other large-scale construction jobs initiated by former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in 2007 as part of 10 major infrastructure projects, the response is not quite as clear or positive.

Two others on the list opened last year: the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link.

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Six more are under way: the Sha Tin-Central Link; Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Link and Tuen Mun Western Bypass; Lok Ma Chau Loop; West Kowloon Cultural District; Kai Tak Development; as well as the Kwu Tung North, Fanling North and Hung Shui Kiu new development areas in the northern New Territories.

The 10th project, a rail link between Hong Kong and Shenzhen airports, has been dropped.

The government’s harshest critics have labelled some of the projects white elephants, but others say they are necessary additions whose value to Hong Kong will be evident in time.

Referring to the high-speed rail link, which cost HK$84.4 billion and opened last September, Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan scoffed that it would take 200 years to break even.

“There’s zero chance of breaking even,” she said, accusing the government of exaggerating the economic benefits of having the quicker, direct rail connection to the mainland.

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As of the middle of last month, more than 4.2 million passenger journeys had been recorded on the high-speed trains. The average daily ridership of about 50,000 was about 38 per cent below the government’s estimate of 80,100.

The railway link, which took eight years to build, is also at risk of missing its pre-tax profit target of HK$199 million for the fourth quarter of 2018.

Urban designer Peter Cookson Smith, who has 40 years of experience in Hong Kong, said the link was timely as the city’s future was tied closely with the “Greater Bay Area”, comprising Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong province, which Beijing wants to integrate into a dynamic tech and business hub.

Smith said the new rail system, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and the Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Link as well as the Tuen Mun Western Bypass, all helped to connect Hong Kong with cities on the mainland.

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“It’s going to prepare us for different types of development areas in 25 years, when we get nearer to 2047,” he said, referring to the 50th anniversary of Britain returning Hong Kong to China.

The Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, guarantees the city’s capitalist system and way of life will remain unchanged for 50 years after the handover.

To veteran engineer Albert Lai Kwong-tak however, the bridge and high-speed rail projects have a political agenda, and costs and benefits are less of a consideration.

At least six of the projects have been marred by budget overruns or delays, or both.

Lai said officials were prepared to throw good money after bad. And to avoid delays, there had been lax supervision of engineering work.

He said the most shocking example was the Sha Tin-Central Link, the city’s costliest rail project at HK$97.1 billion, and now a major scandal for train operator the MTR Corporation. An entire platform at Hung Hom station risks being dismantled after steel bars were found to have been installed badly. A probe is under way, but the project looks unlikely to meet its completion targets, and costs are expected to overrun substantially.

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Lai said it was negligent of the government to press ahead with several mega projects simultaneously despite the constraints of construction resources, and one result was that budgeted contract sums had ballooned.

“That only benefited the big engineering firms,” he said.

Lai also questioned whether the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and express rail would deliver the promised economic benefits, as both were performing below expectations so far.

The 55km mega bridge was used by an average of 68,500 people daily in its first two months of operation, as expected, but only 3,400 vehicular trips were recorded – less than 40 per cent of the predicted number.

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Dr Hung Wing-tat, a long-time fellow of the Hong Kong Society for Transportation Studies, said the low traffic was the result of restrictions on private cars and coaches, which were there to avoid chaos.

He believed the restrictions would be lifted once bridge operations ran smoothly.

On a brighter note, the Xiqu Centre – the first landmark performance venue at the West Kowloon Cultural District – will open on Sunday, marking a new chapter for arts and culture in the city.

When complete, the district will boast a visual culture museum called M+, the Hong Kong Palace Museum displaying imperial treasures from the Palace Museum in Beijing, and other arts and performing venues. Construction is slightly behind initial targets.

The Xiqu Centre, a long-awaited Chinese opera theatre, will open with a star-studded performance of the classic The Reincarnation of Red Plum, directed by the legendary Dr Pak Suet-sin.

Enthusiastic about what is to come, artist Chow Chun-fai said that even in its planning stages, the West Kowloon Cultural District had given the arts more prominence.

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He said arts students were now assured of more career opportunities and Hongkongers were likely to become more interested in arts and culture.

Frank Vigneron, chairman of the fine arts department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was looking forward to next year’s opening of M+, focusing on 20th and 21st century visual arts, moving images and design.

“It will make a huge difference,” he said, as there would be free admission to most exhibitions.

Brian King, associate dean of Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management, said the district could help Hong Kong become an important showcase of Chinese culture with the opening of the Palace Museum, expected to be completed at the end of 2021.

Sociology professor Lau Siu-kai, of Chinese University, pointed out that former city leader Tsang drew up his plans in a different era.

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Referring to Tsang by his trademark fashion accessory, Lau said: “When ‘bow tie’ rolled out the 10 major infrastructure projects, there had not been much serious discussion in government.”

Lau, who headed the Central Policy Unit government think tank for a decade from 2002, said officials had not expected the plans to spark great opposition or political challenges.

Hongkongers at the time aspired for cooperation with the mainland, he said, and the localism movement, aimed at protecting the city’s autonomy and way of life, had not yet emerged.

He believed all 10 projects were significant when they were unveiled, but did not take off fast enough.

Some elements of the Lok Ma Chau Loop, for example, had become outdated after Hong Kong and Shenzhen finally got moving in 2017 to develop the innovation and technology park. He wondered about its impact in the context of the Greater Bay Area, as key development zones in Qianhai, Hengqin and Nansha on the mainland were much bigger.

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Meanwhile, developments in the northeast New Territories have left Chan Kim-ching unhappy.

The founder of land concern group Liber Research Community said the government was giving developers an unfair advantage by letting them build on farmland bought from villagers and hoarded.

Under the “land sharing” scheme proposed by city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, owners of private farmland can apply to increase the development density for their sites, but at least 60 or 70 per cent of the increased floor area must go to affordable public housing.

“It’s not justified,” Chan said, pointing out that the approach benefited developers, not villagers.

He said Hong Kong’s experience with Tsang’s 10 infrastructure projects showed that policy researchers outside government deserved to be heard.

For example, officials should learn from the inaccurate cost and completion projections, and establish a way to draw opinions from outside government on the proposal for the East Lantau Metropolis.

Last October Lam announced the Lantau Tomorrow Vision, involving 1,700 hectares of reclamation to house up to 1.1 million people. Officials have yet to provide a cost estimate, but the huge project is expected to need upwards of HK$500 billion.

Chan said: “If the government wants to resolve controversies over mega infrastructure projects, encouraging a participatory mechanism is very important.”