by Hugh Morris,
Barely 18 months after finishing work on the longest water-spanning bridge in the world – a 36km behemoth stretching across Hangzhou Bay – in 2009 China launched construction on another, a Y-shaped link between Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland that would seize its title comfortably.
The $20 billion (£15.3bn) Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge will open tomorrow during a ceremony attended by Chinese president Xi Jinping, drawing to a close an engineering chapter that lasted 35 years from imagination to execution.
What’s the point?
The 55km (34 mile) bridge is part of China’s plan for a Greater Bay area, covering 21,800 square miles and encompassing 11 cities, including Hong Kong, the fourth most densely populated city in the world, and Macau, the most densely populated city in the world and a huge gambling mecca.
Some 68 million people live in the Greater Bay area, more than in the entire UK.
The government says the bridge – which includes a four-mile tunnelled section linked between two artificial islands that allows a shipping channel to remain open – will cut journey times between key cities from three hours to 30 minutes, to the benefit of commuters and tourists.
Critics have suggested that the bridge is also a symbol of the mainland government’s growing desire to draw Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous city state, closer to Beijing.
Is it worth the trip?
Driving across the bridge will not be as simple as rocking up in your roadster for immense views of the Pearl River Delta. Private vehicle owners will need a special permit to cross the bridge, with the six lanes reserved mainly for shuttle buses, freight vehicles and special hire cars. There will be no public transport, and tolls will start at 150 yuan (£16.50) for small vehicles, 200 for buses and 300 for shuttle buses.
A 2016 report into its likely traffic reckoned that 29,100 vehicles a day would be crossing by 2030. For comparison, London’s M25 has an average daily traffic of 263,000 vehicles.
One issue that might keep traffic down at first is the fact that the main road linking to the Hong Kong Port will not be ready until next year.
How does it compare to the world’s longest bridges?
Favourably. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau is a remarkable feat of engineering. Despite opening some two years late (its 2016 opening was repeatedly pushed back), there is no denying its majesty. Naeem Hussain, global bridge leader for engineering firm Arup told the South China Morning Post: “We were all trying to do something unique that nobody had done before.”
With a curve designed to look like a shark (said to reduce boredom in drivers), the steel bridge also features three towers inspired by the areas they cross – dolphins for Jianghai, Chinese knots for Qingzhou and a boat’s mast for Jiuzhou.
The bridge, which consists of three cable-stayed sections, has been built with a life span of 120 years in mind and has been stress-tested to withstand the changeable climate of the region. It will be able to withstand winds of 340km/h (greater than a Category Five hurricane), resist the effects of an 8-magnitude earthquake and the impact of a 300,000 tonne vessel.
What makes the bridge all the more impressive is that many ideological and technical points of its construction had to be negotiated between both Hong Kong and mainland China engineers, the former working to rules and red tape inherited from its British era. Lin Ming, from the state-owned contractor, China Communications Construction, has said that differs of opinion ranged on issues from scheduling to landscaping.
The tunnel section was also a source of stress. Gao Xinglin, the project planning manager, said it kept him up at night. “There were many nights where I couldn’t fall asleep because there were too many difficulties during the construction,” he said.
“Linking the 80,000-tonne pipes under the sea with watertight technology was the most challenging.”
Is everyone excited?
Sort of. Criticism of the project has come from pretty much all available angles, from financial and political to environmental and safety.
Over its nine years construction there have been concerns about budget, delays and corruption, but one of the great sources of scepticism has come from Hong Kong, which contributed some $9 billion to the cost.
“Hong Kong has had to fund a lot of the bridge, but we won’t see the benefits here,” lawmaker Claudi Mo told CNN. There are concerns that Hong Kong (remember it’s tremendously densely populated) will be flooded with visitors from the mainland. The city is already dealing with widespread poverty and an acute lack of public housing.
Mo commented, too, on the geopolitical symbolism of the bridge. “You can’t see the existing transport connections – in a literal way. But this bridge is very visible… you can see it from the plane when you fly in to Hong Kong, and it’s breathtaking,” she said.
“It links Hong Kong to China almost like an umbilical cord. You see it, and you know you’re linked up to the motherland.”
The death of as many as 10 workers and the injury of some 200 more have not aided the bridge’s public image, while last year 19 laboratory staff working for a government contractor were charged over faking concrete test reports.
Further concern followed in April this year when concrete parts of one of the artificial islands appeared to become unstuck and drifted away. Officials said the placement of the blocks was by design.
The construction of the bridge has also been blamed for a fall in the number of Chinese white dolphins in the waters off the coast of Lantau, with the creation of man-made islands said to be responsible for disturbing their natural habitat.
Are there any longer bridges?
There is, rather annoyingly, no standard way of measuring the total length of bridges, and variation according to how their start and finish is determined, as well as how sections under water are treated, meaning such rankings can be quite tricky.
The longest bridge in the world, for example, is not above water and is instead a viaduct – China’s Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge, to be precise, which is 164km long.
But the Hong Kong bridge will be the longest sea-crossing bridge in the world, taking the title of the aforementioned Hangzhou Bay Bridge.
Where even is Macau and should I go?
Officially the Macao Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, Macau is “one of the most intriguing destinations in Asia”, according to Telegraph Travel’s destination experts Ed Peters.
“It was among the first ports of call for Portuguese merchants and missionaries in the 16th century, and later became a fully fledged colony,” he said. “Handed back to China in 1999, it has since reinvented itself as the region’s gambling hub. Beyond the 30-plus casinos is a feast of entertainment that includes bungee jumping, Broadway-style extravaganzas and gourmet dining.”
The region is split into four parts – the original city on the peninsula, the former island of Taipa; the Cotai Strip, where many of the new casinos have been built; and Coloane, which is still uncluttered by high rises.
It has one of the highest per capita GDP’s in the world, behind only Liechtenstein, Qatar and Monaco.
Macau also has a vast and growing tourism industry, and is currently the fifth most visited city in the world, ahead of New York and the entirety of India, according to figures from Euromonitor.