The missing links

The missing links for East Lantau Metropolis

Francis Cheung says if East Lantau is to be developed, it needs two links to thrive - one joining it with Central, and the other linking the airports in Hong Kong and Shenzhen

Given that grand visions outlined in policy addresses often find their way to the dustbin of history, it will be interesting to see whether the proposal for an East Lantau Metropolis, a 1,000-hectare artificial island in waters between Hong Kong Island and Lantau, will ever become reality.

I believe it would stand a better chance if two missing links were added to the picture: one connecting Lantau and Hong Kong via the artificial island; the other, linking the Hong Kong International Airport and the Shenzhen Baoan International Airport.

However, these links face different obstacles. One concerns the current legal protection of Victoria Harbour against unnecessary reclamation, while the other is the proposed third runway for Hong Kong.

Just before the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the Legislative Council passed the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance, which sets stringent limits to reclamation within Victoria Harbour. More significantly, the western boundary of the harbour was drawn in such a way as to include Green Island, just off the western tip of Hong Kong Island.

The law poses a serious challenge to building a bridge or tunnel linking the proposed metropolis and Hong Kong Island, as land would have to be reclaimed outwards from Kennedy Town towards Green Island to accommodate the link. Given that the passage of the ordinance grew out of environmentalists' opposition to Green Island reclamation under the colonial government, one should expect a tough fight even if it could be justified to the courts that the project addresses a "compelling, overriding and present need" - a key criterion set in precedent cases.

The government could consider anchoring the Hong Kong end of the bridge or tunnel on the south side of the island, for example, near Sandy Bay, as a way of skirting the law. But that would render the connection between the proposed metropolis and Central much more circuitous.

Moreover, a more direct link to Central would make it easier for vehicles entering Hong Kong from the metropolis to connect to the Western Harbour Crossing, giving the city the convenience of a genuine ring road.

As the metropolis is envisioned as a commercial centre, not having a direct connection to Hong Kong Island would be highly impractical. Therefore, it remains to be seen how the government intends to overcome this legal obstacle. Hopefully, legislators can see the strategic importance of this missing piece in the city's infrastructure jigsaw and help find a way to get it built.

The second piece of infrastructure crucial to making Lantau a bona fide "converging point" of traffic from the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau is a rail link between the airports in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Indeed, back in 2010, the government had already conceived the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Express Line, connecting the two airports through Qianhai , with a cross-boundary spur line to Hung Shui Kiu. The project appears to have been mothballed after a public consultation exercise.

A quick cost-benefit analysis would show that the express link should take priority over a third runway.

Based on the government's estimates in 2010, adding a third runway would cost at least 70 per cent more than the express line project. Equally important, the environmental impact of the line should be much smaller than the runway, which involves massive reclamation.

The Hong Kong airport would certainly benefit from the added capacity afforded by an additional runway. But is it really the most strategically sound way to reinforce Hong Kong's status as an aviation hub? As someone who was involved in the planning of both airports, I believe the best move would be to develop better synergies between the two, with Hong Kong focusing on international routes and Shenzhen handling domestic ones.

Hong Kong can never match Shenzhen in terms of the availability of space and planning flexibility. But the express link could put the two airports within 25 minutes' travel time of each other, effectively making Lantau part of a single regional air and surface transit hub. That way, Hong Kong has a better chance of catching more travellers flying into or out of the Pearl River Delta region, along with the economic benefits they would bring.

Part of the official justification for putting the express link on the back-burner a few years ago was uncertainties about service demand. Now that the central government has made a commitment to developing the Qianhai Shenzhen-Hong Kong Modern Service Industry Co-operation Zone, and with development of Hung Shui Kiu proceeding apace, there should be no question of the need to develop the express link. It's about time the government rid itself of the tunnel vision focused only on adding a third runway.

In the end, there is no point developing Lantau Island if we do not put in place the transport infrastructure needed to augment its role in Hong Kong and across the Pearl River Delta.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The missing links