Improving infrastructure keeps Yangtze River Delta vibrant

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By Jean-Charles Briand and Anna Sellger 

April 18 – Perhaps no other region has played so vital a role in China’s growth as the Yangtze River Delta. Home to Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejian provinces, the delta has become the country’s commercial core, accounting for roughly 20 percent of GDP and nearly half of all foreign direct investment, according to Xinhua News Agency. As part of our series focusing on China’s hotspots, we look closely at the YRD and the infrastructure that keeps its economy humming, from the harbors and airports that provide gateways to the outside world to the roads and railways crisscrossing its interior. What emerges is a picture of mixed development that has created benefits—and challenges—for the region.

Harbors and airports
Among the toughest challenges has been implementing a unified plan for the region’s harbors. While Shanghai is still the delta’s major destination point for cargo ships, its rapid growth has brought about opportunities for neighboring cities looking to support their own ports. As a result, some cities now compete almost as much as they cooperate with the region’s megalopolis. Ningbo, for example, is expanding berths at its harbor – considered the nation’s best natural deepwater port – even as Shanghai finishes work on a new deepwater port of its own at Yangshan Island.

Local rivalries aren’t likely to end anytime soon, even with a central government plan that lays out assignments for each city. The plan allows Shanghai to specialize on large container ships and Ningbo on bulk cargo. Other measures call for more infrastructure to connect the various ports, including the 36 kilometer Hangzhou Bay sea bridge to bring Ningbo fully into Shanghai’s orbit.

Air traffic poses another set of problems. Many believe Shanghai’s Pudong and Hongqiao airports, which together compose the region’s international hub for air travel, won’t be able to cope with rising demand in the coming years. Some 240 million passengers, up from more than 67 million today, and 10 million tons of cargo, compared to less than 3 million last year, are expected to flood the region by 2020.

So different local governments are investing in new infrastructure. The YRD’s airport density—it has 10 airports in all—already ranks among the highest in the world. More facilities are planned, and almost all are being expanded and upgraded. Some worry, though, that competition among local interests has prevented broader strategic thinking about how best to deal with increasing traffic. Specialists have begun to question the pace and scale of many projects as well as the design and function of the airports themselves. Others worry about redundant expenses. Not surprisingly, only a few airports, including those in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Ningbo, have been profitable.

Roads, Rail and waterways
The situation is somewhat brighter inland.

Road are highly developed and busier than any other transit system in the region. A network of highways currently under construction will make even more improvements with additional links among cities and shorter traveling times. Not only are governments building new roads—as much as 300,000 kilometers of highway is expected by 2020—they’re upgrading as well. Both the Shanghai-Nanjing and Shanghai-Hangzhou Expressways are being expanded. The region’s transport plans envisage 12,000 kilometers of expressways by 2020, nearly double that in Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang two years ago.

Plans also are in the works to help relieve the YRD’s teeming railways, already carrying six times as many passengers as the national average. A modern rail network providing for speeds as fast as 250 kph should increase train frequencies and help cut travel time to major cities in the Shanghai-Nanjing-Hangzhou Triangle once it’s completed.

Problems still persists for freight transport in the interior, however.

Shipping along the YRD’s 4,200 kilometers of inland waterways ranks third and last among the region’s modes of transit. Because shipping is well suited for bulk commodities, coal, grain and other commodities account for two-thirds of the traffic, much of which flows east-west along the Yangtze and north-south along the Grand Canal and other water ways.

Suffering from a lack of investment, the delta’s water thoroughfares are starting to show their age. Outdated equipment, inadequate information-technology systems, obsolete inland port infrastructure –all make barge transit less and less attractive. What’s more, safety issues persist despite attempts to improve conditions.

Though Shanghai remains the economic core of the YRD; new projects are starting to change this situation and accompanying the development of the Jiangsu and Zhejiang, overall growth in the region is now being spurred by needed upgrades to the existing infrastructure. Difficulties remain, particularly in terms of integration, but the progression of the region’s transportation network is such that new projects like the connecting Anhui province to the YRD should now enjoy more attention.