via HowardWinnReports

The government’s target for completing the Hong Kong portion of the Hong Kong–Zuhai-Macau bridge by December 2017 is looking increasingly unconvincing. The project which includes an artificial island to house the Hong Kong Boundary Crossing Facilities (HKBCF) has been fraught with delays. But there are now fresh doubts over the December 2017 target following the recent application by the Highways Department for an extension of the use of the land which accommodates the HKBCF site office, for another four and half years. Permission for the use of the site expires in July 2016, and the Highways Department has applied for an extension until December 31, 2020. This site is in near Ying Hei Road in Tung Chung near Sun Hung Kai Properties Century Link residential development.

macau zuhai bridge
File photo: HKFP.

Civil engineers say it is normal for site offices to be maintained for more or less a year after a project has been completed. This is to deal with defects that occur with most projects and to complete the final accounts and claims. On this basis it looks as if the government is thinking in terms of completing the project in 2019, but engineers think that even that date is optimistic.

In response to questions from HowardWinnReports as to the reasons for the application for an extension the Highways Department reiterated what it told the Legislative Council Public Works sub-committee in December 2015: “while we anticipate that the absolutely essential works for commissioning the HKBCF would be completed by end 2017, there would be remaining works not absolutely essential for the commissioning of the HKBCF which would be completed beyond end 2017.  We thus need to maintain the site offices and the resident site staff team for such remaining works; and handling outstanding issues including defects maintenance, resolution of contractual claims and account finalization of the works contracts. Hence, we propose to extend the TGLA to end 2020 for the site offices of the resident site staff and contractors.” Engineers are unconvinced by this explanation and say that contractors normally like to close the site office down as soon as possible as they are expensive to maintain.

macau zuhai bridge
File photo: HKFP.

Meanwhile HowardWinnReports understands that problems with the north west corner of the artificial island has resulted in further delays to another key aspect of the project. Draggages are currently using the world’s largest tunnel boring machine to link the artificial island to Tuen Mun. Engineers say that tunnelling has stopped for a  few months as the landing point on the artificial island moved some 3.5 metres requiring remedial work. There are also unconfirmed reports that the tunnel has had to be realigned.

The artificial island which is at the centre of the delays to the project covers 150-hectares of which 130 hectares will be used for passenger and cargo clearing for traffic using the Hong Kong-Zuhai-Macao bridge, while the remaining 20 hectares will provide the landing point for the tunnel linking the artificial island to Tuen Mun. The HKBCF according to the HZMB website comprises cargo and passenger clearing and vehicle inspection facilities, offices for the Immigration Department and Customs & Excise, along with road networks, and a public transport interchange. It is a key hub without which traffic cannot flow across the new bridge.

artificial island
Artificial Island for HKBCF. Photo: Wikicommons.

The Hong Kong side of the bridge project was held up for a year by a judicial review of the project. It was hoped that this period could be recovered by speeding up construction. But in a classic demonstration of the old adage ‘more haste less speed,’ this has contributed to further delays. These have occurred as a result of the non-dredge reclamation technique adopted for this project – the first, (and probably the last) time the technique has been used in Hong Kong.

Parts of the island, particularly the sea-wall, have been moving. Engineers say this is because in attempting to speed up the settlement of the reclamation, too much weight has been applied too quickly. This has changed the nature of the marine mud and in effect turned it into ‘toothpaste’ resulting in unanticipated movement. (See links at the bottom of this story for more on this).

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge
Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. Photo: Transport and Housing Bureau.

Despite the delays there was a good chance that the government’ would be spared the embarrassment of completing its portion of the project works. This is because mainland contractors last year reported difficulties with the six-kilometre tunnel sections of its part of the bridge project. The tunnel sections were reportedly leaking. The Director of Guangdong National Development and Reform Commission Li Chunhong was reported to have said in early 2015 that 2020 would be a difficult target to meet.

However, it transpires that the problems were not as horrendous as at first assumed and contractors familiar with the project say that these difficulties have been overcome and the Chinese are making good progress with the 6.7 kilometre tunnel.  There was a significant pause last August following the immersion of the 18th 200-metre tunnel section. But an entry on April 1 says that it successful immersed section 25 and had increased the length of the tunnel to 4,365 metres. This implies that seven sections of 200-metre tunnels have been immersed since last August.

As a result of this development engineers are saying that the Chinese side of the bridge project is likely to be completed some two years ahead of the Hong Kong work which will result in considerable embarrassment for the Hong Kong government. This is why the Highways Department is demanding, orally not in writing, that the work be completed by December 2017. One contractor present at one of these meetings with the Highways Department said. “We were told the project had to be finished by December 2017. But nobody believed it could happen.”

Howard Winn has been a journalist for more than 25 years working mostly in Asia. He was until recently Lai See columnist for the South China Morning Post, a column that focused on the lighter side of business and more. He was previously Deputy Editor and Business Editor of the Hong Kong Standard. His work has been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. His latest work can be found at