HONG KONG — China officially opened the world’s longest sea bridge on Tuesday after China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and local officials inaugurated the 34-mile structure, which crosses the Pearl River Delta to link Hong Kong with Macau and the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai.
The project, which includes sections of bridge and artificial islands linked by a four-mile tunnel west of Hong Kong’s airport, went billions of dollars over budget and was delayed by two years. Chinese officials expect the bridge to significantly cut driving time between the two sides of the Pearl River, helping to achieve their vision of a Greater Bay Area, as China calls the effort to knit the region’s cities more closely.
Plans for the opening ceremony were announced just days beforehand, apparently timed to coincide with Mr. Xi’s first trip to the southern province of Guangdong in nearly six years. Mr. Xi’s contribution to the opening event, on an artificial island holding Zhuhai’s port facilities, was modest.
“I declare the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge is formally open,” he said, after comments by Vice Premier Han Zheng and local officials, including the leaders of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong Province. Then digital fireworks exploded on a screen behind him.
Why was the bridge built?
The Pearl River Delta — which includes the financial center of semiautonomous Hong Kong, the tech hub of Shenzhen and manufacturing areas in several other mainland cities, including Dongguan — is a powerful economic engine for China. That status was bolstered by transportation projects like a highway linking the eastern cities in the 1990s.
The western side of the river, which includes the former Portuguese colony and gambling hub of Macau, is comparatively less developed. Local leaders hope the bridge will expand the potential for growth in the area, by easing access to cheaper land on the western side and ports and other infrastructure to the east.
Critics of the project say its goals are more political than economic, aiding efforts by China’s central government to bind the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau more tightly with the rest of the country.
How much did it cost?
The 14-mile main span cost $7 billion. The Hong Kong government spent $13.7 billion more on tunnels and border-crossing facilities on an artificial island near the city’s airport.
At least 10 workers were killed during the nine years of construction, and environmentalists have raised concerns about potential harm to endangered Chinese white dolphins.
The construction was also dogged by corruption, with 19 people facing criminal charges over faked concrete tests.
The kickoff of the bridge comes one month after the opening of a high-speed-rail station in Hong Kong, which was controversial because it allows mainland police officers to operate in the heart of the former British colony for the first time.
What is special about it?
The structure required more than 400,000 tons of steel. It is raised to allow for ships to pass underneath. But because the bridge enters Hong Kong next to the city’s airport, the eastern sections were built according to strict height limits, and a four-mile undersea tunnel links the Hong Kong side to the main bridge span.
Since vehicles are driven on the right side of the road in mainland China and the left side in Hong Kong and Macau, the bridge includes a couple of points where drivers change sides.
Who will use it?
Private cars will have limited access to the bridge, with special permits required to drive the entire distance. The Hong Kong government produced an animated video listing the requirements. “It is simple and convenient,” the narrator says unconvincingly.
Most travelers will cross on shuttle bus lines. Large parking lots have been built on either end for private cars. Government estimates for traffic by the year 2030 have been scaled back to 126,000 passengers daily from about 172,000.
The mainland city of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, is building its own competitor bridge across the Pearl River that is expected to open in 2023.