A mega cross-border bridge that connects Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau was part of a major push by the government to integrate the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region, but analysts and insiders are now concerned whether the project will be able to recoup its investment costs.

The project has an estimated cost of more than US$17 billion, and is widely known as the most expensive and technically difficult bridge ever built in in China. The bridge, which puts the three cities within an hour’s commute of each other, was originally scheduled to open to traffic in 2016, but several incidents, including a judicial review against the environmental impact assessment of the project, a corruption investigation, and budget overruns, have delayed the project multiple times.

“The delays in the construction of the bridge had given cities in the PRD region time to greatly develop their port capacity, resulting in a situation where many exporters in the delta no longer need to use Hong Kong,” said chief research officer at the Hong Kong-based One Country Two Systems Research Institute, Fang Zhou. “Other PRD bridges will offer lower tariffs than the new bridge, while existing cargo barges to Hong Kong are even cheaper.”

“In terms of time and convenience, the bridge is not so competitive,” Zhou added.

While officials at the Guangdong Development and Reform Commission said during a public hearing in Zhuhai last month that an annual traffic flow of 21 million vehicles and annual income of CN¥2.2 billion are expected over the first 30 years, the question of how many years will it take to pay back the investment remains unanswered. In fact, some have even said the projections made by the officials were far too optimistic, given that five more bridges and tunnels across the Pearl River will be built in the future as well.

The strongest economic benefit of the bridge is that it can enable producers west of the Pearl River move their goods faster to the Hong Kong International Airport. In 2016, the airport has handled around 4.52 million tons of air cargo, making it the top freight transportation airport worldwide for the seventh consecutive year.

While the financial value of the project seems to be rather suspicious, some say it would have an impact on Hong Kongers in other areas, too.

“I am also skeptical about the bridge’s economic value. With that said, I do see the need to have more options to connect Hong Kong and China by land, as such traffic is currently quite saturated”, an engineer who prefers to remain anonymous told Harbour Times. “The bridge could have an impact on Hong Kongers’ life style when it opens – there could be more people making the decision to find a job, or even live in China when there are more convenient ways to connect the two places.”

The Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau bridge is scheduled to open to traffic some time in 2018, Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung King-chung confirmed in his official blog recently.

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