Understanding the HZMB

It’s been a year since the Greater Bay’s symbol-to-beat-all-symbols of integration opened. Local media are full of gushing praise for the project; international media less so. Both are understandable. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge is a testament to the scale of the ambitions held for the region, as well as to the challenges presented to the region’s capacity for change and reform.

There is much to be proud of. The HZMB, which runs from Hong Kong’s Lantau island across to an artificial island off the coast of Macau and Zhuhai, is a marvel of engineering, the world’s longest sea crossing. It is now much easier to get from the eastern to the western side of this densely populated region: journeys that previously took many hours have been cut, sometimes to less than an hour.

However, it has also been the victim of high expectations. The bridge is losing money on its operations – HK$1.9 billion so far, by one estimate – and traffic is less than half of original projections, even though it carried 14 million passengers in its first year. As anyone who has been on it can attest, this is a fraction of its capacity.

To say the bridge’s best days lie ahead of it would be an understatement. But it helps to know why it is proving to be such a challenge to get numbers up. 

There are three main reasons. The first is that it is still hard to get a license to drive on the bridge. This is partly because cross-border vehicle licenses have been a tightly controlled racket for so long; it takes time to let go of the monopoly profits enjoyed by bus and limo companies, let alone the lucrative business of licensing cross-border private cars. But it is also because of the legacy of one country, two systems: insurance and licensing regimes in the three jurisdictions need time to sort out a common standard. 

The bureaucrats have been making progress, albeit slowly, recently. Online application processes have been set up, and these can easily be widened to the general public once the three jurisdictions’ respective Security Bureaus have been assured that the right controls are in place. License plates will be issued electronically. Freedom of movement has been agreed in principle. Another two years, maximum, to get drivers moving freely between the three jurisdictions seems reasonable to expect.

The second reason is that the biggest beneficiary of the bridge – passengers transiting through the Hong Kong airport – still don’t know about it. The HKIA needs time to build its Intermodal Transit Terminal, which will allow passengers to skip immigration and go straight onto the bridge. It is due to open in 2022. At that point (one would imagine), the airport will start marketing the bridge to its global audience.

The third reason, which cannot be fixed in the next two years, is that the bridge took too long to build. The harsh truth is that the HZMB was designed for a bygone era. Hong Kong’s container terminals no longer desperately need a link to the western side of the Bay, because factories are no longer desperate to relocate there from the crowded eastern side. The HZMB’s primary attraction is now as a conduit for tourists, gamblers and conventioneers going westwards. And even in that respect, the bottom has been dropping out of projections since the Hong Kong protests began.

This is not to mean the bridge cannot still become more productive and efficient. Once driving licenses are standardized and a mountain of paperwork is reduced to a molehill, it will be used more frequently. The western side of the Bay is growing as a global tourism destination and will likely accelerate its development once Macau’s casino licensing regime is refreshed, probably in 2022. Zhuhai, Zhongshan and Jiangmen have large potential to take overflow from the highly priced eastern side of the bay.

But yes, some realism is in order. The HZMB cannot take bullet trains. Its upside as a people-mover is, therefore, limited. It won’t be more than five years before the Shenzhen-Zhongshan bridge (with a railway) opens. That will ensure any traffic from Shenzhen and Dongguan (which is already miniscule) will evaporate.

But so what? It was expensive, yes. Yet surely this is a project that can be chalked up to experience. No one at the time it was first proposed could have imagined the Greater Bay Area changing as fast as it has. The HZMB will still serve a function, albeit a reduced one from what was originally envisaged. It will be treasured by long-weekenders and day-trippers alike for decades to come. 

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