The daily patronage and passenger flow have been an embarrassing anticlimax a year after Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge – the world’s longest sea-crossing – amid much fanfare when cadres talked up the manifold benefits as cities on both ends would thrive on the influx of people and capital.
A drive along the 55-kilometer bridge-tunnel structure that wriggles through the Pearl River estuary as the quickest shortcut between Hong Kong and Macau as well as other boomtowns on the west bank of the affluent delta is indeed a smooth and enjoyable one. This is largely because you can cruise at the top speed along the six-lane link for a spin above waves on the mega bridge usually devoid of other vehicles.
Indeed, to have your car purr along the big yet underused bridge is considered a privilege, when not all cars in Hong Kong, Macau or neighboring mainland urban centers are entitled to take this shortcut to cross the sea, despite the fact that all these cities are in one country. And other travelers and tourists can only hop on buses to take a look at its towering pylons, artificial islands and tunnel which cuts through the sea bed, but their numbers are on the wane as well after the novelty and media attention have begun to fizzle out.
Commuters, car owners and cross-boundary coach operators blame high toll fees, red tape in the immigration clearance process as well as an elusive licensing regime where owners of private cars from any side must obtain a special permit beforehand to use the bridge, and the anti-government demonstrations that continue to roil Hong Kong and scare off visitors have sent vehicular and passenger flow plummeting further since June.
Figures from Hong Kong’s Immigration Department show inbound passenger arrivals via the bridge nosedived by almost a quarter to about 500,000 in September, half of the peak of the 1 million arrivals recorded in November 2018 shortly after its opening.
The empty lanes are worrying governments, investors and debtors since less than a million cars passed the bridge in its first year, or a mere 2,500 vehicles per day including private cars, buses and lorries, according to the bridge authority based in the mainland city of Zhuhai, compared with the optimistic 9,200 vehicles per day projected by the Hong Kong government during the bridge’s planning back in 2008.
Revenues from toll fees during the same period stood at a dismal 300 million yuan, a fraction of the bridge’s total investment to the tune of 76 billion yuan (US$10.7 billion).
As recouping the hefty investment for the bridge is becoming ever more unlikely, officials from Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province have reportedly met several times to discuss facilitation measures and incentives to woo more traffic.
Hong Kong’s Transport Department announced on Thursday 5,000 extra quotas for permit applications and that private cars from the city and Macau would be allowed to travel to and from each city, as well as between Zhuhai and Shenzhen, via eight approved land checkpoints. Previously, Hong Kong-registered cars could only travel either to Macau or Zhuhai.
More competition is on the way as another mega-bridge upstream linking Shenzhen and Zhongshan is slated to be up and running by 2024, when a big volume of traffic is expected to be attracted due to no quotas or immigration checks and more lanes and feeder lines between the two mainland cities.