Lawmakers on Friday may decide whether a contentious US$8.6 billion express railway that would connect Hong Kong to southern China's two most important cities will move forward.
Hong Kong's government pitches the railway as a key to more closely integrate itself into the mainland Chinese economy. It warns that Hong Kong could be hurt without a dedicated link to China's high-speed national rail network.
Approval isn't a certainty. Opposition to the express rail link has already delayed progress for months. Cost-conscious legislators point to an existing railway that runs below capacity.
The express train would stop in the city of Shenzhen just across Hong Kong's northern border. Then, it would travel to an outlying suburb of Guangzhou, southern China's traditional commercial and transport hub, in about 45 minutes.
The current service, which arrives in downtown Guangzhou, takes about two hours. With the completion of a high-speed line linking Guangzhou and Beijing set for 2013, government officials say a train ride from Hong Kong to Beijing could take about 10 hours, compared with about 24 hours now.
"There's a strong public consensus to get this project up and running as quickly as possible," Eva Cheng, Hong Kong's secretary for transport and housing, said Tuesday in Guangzhou.
She noted that the faster traveling time would benefit the 660,000 Hong Kong residents who make the trip to mainland China at least once a week.
Hong Kong's chief executive, Donald Tsang, has made infrastructure spending one of the cornerstones of his economic policy.
Mr. Tsang created a development bureau in 2007 to push ahead with 10 large-scale infrastructure projects before 2012, which he said would "lay a new foundation for our sustained development in the future."
The legislature has approved about $1.2 billion to fund Hong Kong's portion of the world's longest oversea bridge, a 30-mile, six-lane highway to Macau and the mainland city of Zhuhai. Construction began in December.
Funding for the new rail link was expected to have been approved in time for construction to have begun last year and finished in 2015. But opposition lawmakers pushed back the vote to the new year, arguing that the cost of $530 million for each mile of railway is out of proportion with the benefits to the economy.
Alan Leong, who sits on the legislative subcommittee reviewing the project, accused the government in an interview of trying to "bulldoze" its proposal through the legislature without a proper vetting, and without considering cheaper alternatives.
"We are all for the express rail to be expanded to Hong Kong," Mr. Leong says. But he says the government's proposed terminus is designed to benefit property developers who have built luxury condominiums and office towers there.
The lawmaker says the cost of the express rail is "out of proportion" with that of comparable rail and infrastructure projects.
The government didn't respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Cheng said most of the higher costs were driven by rising global commodity prices and extra engineering work required to address geological concerns.
"If costs eventually come down, every penny will be returned to the public coffers," she said.
Villagers in a rural settlement that would be displaced have also mounted a campaign to stop the railway. The villagers plan to step up their protest outside the legislature as the vote approaches.
Ms. Cheng said the government determined the route of the railway after careful consideration to minimize the impact on the public. The villagers will be offered compensation for resettling.