Fifteen years ago, China started to work on an ambitious project that would eventually become the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge ever built. Now that bridge, which connects the mainland to both of the country’s special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macau, is finally ready. After an inaugural ceremony in the mainland city of Zhuhai presided over by Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Tuesday (Oct. 23), with fireworks, the bridge will open to traffic at 9am on Wednesday.
The 55-kilometer (34.2 miles) span—the sea-crossing portion alone is shorter—is part of Beijing’s efforts to knit Hong Kong, Macau, and the southern mainland into the so-called Greater Bay Area to rival San Francisco’s Bay Area as a tech hub. The project follows the logic that China has been using for years to guide economic development—if you want to get rich, first build a road.
There’s a political component to the project at well, which creates a visible, physical connection between the mainland and autonomous Hong Kong, which Beijing has been exerting more control over. “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,” Hong Kong independent lawmaker Claudia Mo told CNN. “It links Hong Kong to China almost like an umbilical cord. You see it, and you know you’re linked up to the motherland.”
Hong Kong last month saw the opening of an $11 billion bullet train connecting the city to the mainland’s high-speed railway network. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge project is the next piece of the puzzle, and it cost some $20 billion, and saw years of delays.
The bridge structure includes two artificial islands that serve as entry and exit points for a 4-mile underwater sea tunnel west of the Hong Kong section of the bridge on Lantau Island. It’s designed to last 120 years, withstand typhoons, and resist the impact of a magnitude-8 earthquake and a 300,000 metric ton vessel, according to the official in charge of the project’s construction.
Since construction work started a decade ago, at least 10 workers have died and more than 600 have been injured. The construction project also appears to have had unwanted ecological impacts—marine animals like the Chinese white dolphin are now hard to find in the waters around Lantau.
The bridge will see traffic from intercity shuttle buses, trucks, and taxis as well as private cars—which will travel on the right, in keeping with mainland traffic rules (Hong Kong and Macau drive on the left). By 2030, nearly 30,000 vehicles will be using the bridge daily, according to estimates. But it’s not going to be easy for individual drivers to get the permits to carry out that perfect road trip.