A Bridge too Near?

stonecutters bridge

It will be a glittering beauty, stretching a full kilometer across Hong Kong’s Rambler Channel at the entrance to the Kwai Chung Container Port, its cables stretching down like stylized spider webs to enclose a dual three-lane carriageway that, according to the government, is to help relieve Hong Kong’s overburdened roads.

But to its critics, Stonecutters Bridge is a HK$2.76 billion bridge to nowhere, a make-work monster to prop up Hong Kong’s construction industry and keep the city’s indefatigable public works bureaucracy humming. In a tightly-knit area where public sector development appears to have gone berserk, it will be one of eight bridges, two tunnels and a Metropolitan Transit Railway line to or on the Tsing Yi island transport hub.

One critic flatly calls the bridge a waste of money. It goes to Stonecutters Island — which is no longer an island since it was joined to the Kowloon peninsula in the 1990s to provide land for the construction of the city’s burgeoning road and railway network. Despite an illustrious past as a rest and recreation site for British colonial troops, today the erstwhile peninsula is mainly the site of Stonecutters Island Sewage Treatment Works, an element in the government’s long-running and largely ineffective campaign to clean up Victoria Harbor.

The bridge project is providing hundreds of construction jobs — 1,400, according to environment, transport and works secretary Sarah Liao, who says it is a key part of the long-planned Route 8 highway development linking Lantau Island and Sha Tin in Hong Kong’s north eastern New Territories.

“This is more than an engineering feat [in] which our engineers will no doubt take pride,” Liao gushed at the signing of the contract with international consortium Maeda-Hitachi-Yokogawa-Hsin Chong Joint Venture in 2004. “This is a defining piece of architecture for Hong Kong and a reflection of the confidence of this world city to rise up to the challenges of the new millennium.”

But Paul Zimmerman, convenor of Designing Hong Kong Harbour District, who described the bridge as a waste of public money, says that "You can’t see any specific traffic using that particular bridge for a very long time.” He also points the finger at the highways department construction industry, which he says is under a lot of pressure to keep up expenditures. “They’re almost inventing excuses right now to build.”

What many people don’t realize, says Zimmerman, is that the government’s commitment to infrastructure investment dates back to the 1950s, when an influx of immigrants from Mainland China swelled the population. Since then, however, population growth in Hong Kong has eased, meaning there is a lower-than-expected demand for works projects such as Stonecutters Bridge.

In the 1980s, Zimmerman says, the government decided that it was best to build a surplus of transport corridors to accommodate the expected population growth. But the need is no longer there. “We don’t have this massive growth in our population.” Hong Kong’s population is actually moderating much faster than government officials projected, with the territory’s population standing at 6.9 million, about a million fewer than expected.

Nonetheless, because of the number of people employed at the highways department, and bureaucratic inflexibility, the government is reluctant to cut back on its infrastructure investments, says Zimmerman. In the meantime, he thinks the money would be better spent on rail, which is overburdened and in need of attention.

Of course, the government begs to differ. The bridge, it said in a response to questions from Asia Sentinel, will further strengthen the road network and Hong Kong’s role as a regional and international logistics hub.

Whatever it is, Stonecutters Bridge promises to be a major engineering feat. When it is completed in 2009, it will be the world’s longest single-span cable-stayed bridge. At night, lights will illuminate the below-deck cross girders and the bridge’s towers — nearly 300 metres high at their peak — to lend it a striking luminescence reserved for architectural majesty. The design, decided on after an international competition in 2000, has been featured on the Discovery Channel’s Extreme Engineering television show, and the government hopes it will become another major landmark.

The bridge and its roads will also be directly connected to the container terminals at Stonecutters and Tsing Yi islands. The bridge also will provide direct access to container terminals in Kwai Chung. “Its completion will hence improve the traffic condition in the port area and its vicinity, increase the capability of the road system in handling traffic incidents affecting the operation of the port especially after typhoons, and help meet the future growth of port traffic,” the government said.

One surprising aspect of the Stonecutters Bridge project is the relative lack of strident opposition. At a time when the government has come under fire for the destruction of the Star Ferry Pier, the planned demolition of Queen’s Pier; the ‘redevelopment’ of historic Lee Tung Street, otherwise known as ‘Wedding Card Street’; and for its plan to build a massive government complex on the last piece of harbour-front land in Central, opposing forces have been noticeably mute when it comes to the bridge.

That could have something to do with its paradoxically low profile. The bridge has been under construction since 2004, but few experts or interest groups know enough about it to comment publicly. No urban planning or geography academics at the University of Hong Kong University and the Chinese University approached for interviews felt comfortable commenting on the project. It was the same for Friends of the Earth. Interview requests lodged by phone and email with the Conservancy Association went unanswered. And if column inches are any indication of a legislator’s passions on an issue, it would seem there’s nary a murmur of anti-bridge excitement among the members of the legislative council, who have had nothing to say about the project in the English-language press.

But the fact is that the territory’s citizens have very little voice in public policy, partly as a result of Hong Kong’s lack of direct elections and very little representation. Although public debate stopped the West Kowloon Cultural Center last year, a 40-hectare, HK$24 billion project, by and large the government has been able to push through its other projects with impunity, including the filling in of Victoria Harbor in front of Central. It is extremely difficult for citizens to learn how public agencies redevelop land outside public scrutiny.

Stonecutters Bridge, for instance, is even more expensive than the controversial Gravina Bridge in Alaska, which did become known as the bridge to nowhere after it was proposed by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. Critics of the project have included heavyweights such as US Presidential candidate and Republican senator John McCain. Gravina Bridge, if it is ever built, will be almost as long as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and 24 metres taller than New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. The price tag? A mere US$315 million — US$35 million less than Stonecutters Bridge.