Transportation Minister Minister Ho Chen Tan (???) said recently that the first section of the Suhua Highway improvement project, which cuts through the mountains along Taiwan's east coast, will open before the Lunar New Year, a major milestone on the project that started in 2011.
The first section, stretching 9.7 kilometers from Su'ao to Dong'ao in Yilan County, will be a safer and faster route than the existing road, taking 10 minutes instead of 30, according to the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC).
"We have completed the most difficult and urgently needed section, which offers an alternative to a road prone to rock falls," said Ho Chen in mid-January during an inspection tour.
Over the years, there have been several calls by the public for improved road safety on the Suhua Highway. In particular, people from northeastern Taiwan have been advocating for a safer and more reliable route as the existing road is treacherous in some parts and often has to be closed due to typhoons, earthquakes and even heavy rains.
For the many young people who have left their homes in northeastern Taiwan to find jobs elsewhere, the trip home for family reunions during Lunar New Year presents an even bigger challenge as that is usually a peak travel period.
The narrow roads, winding along high cliffs, are usually clogged with traffic, while it is difficult to obtain seats on the trains traveling to eastern Taiwan, despite Taiwan Railways Administration's 15 Puyuma express trains on the eastern railway line, due to high demand.
Even if the first part of the Suhua Highway Mountainous Section Improvement Project opens in time for the Feb. 15-20 Lunar New Year holiday, heavy traffic congestion can still be expected, according to Ho Chen, who urged motorists to be prepared to exercise patience.
Furthermore, when the road opens, only cars will be allowed on it initially, the MOTC said, adding that it will impose a maximum speed limit of 60 km per hour and a ban on overtaking.
There will be no minimum speed requirement and motorcycles will not be allowed on the new section, the MOTC said.
Citing an environmental impact assessment, the ministry said motorcyclists would not be able to withstand the heat and lack of ventilation in the long tunnels.
The ministry said it will carry out further evaluations at three- to six-month intervals to consider whether to allow bigger vehicles such as buses and trucks to travel on the new road.
The initial road regulations have been criticized by some drivers but Shau How-jei (???), director of the Suhua Improvement Engineering Office, told CNA that safety is the top priority.
"The project was designed primarily to improve road safety rather than to increase traffic capacity," Shau said.
There are also concerns that the new road will create congestion between Dong'ao and Nan'ao, a winding section not included in the upgrade project.
Transportation officials have said, however, that there will be separate improvement works along that stretch, as well as traffic controls, which are expected to ease congestion.
The full Suhua Highway overhaul project will be completed by the end of 2019, and the travel time between both ends in Yilan and Hualien, which now takes about 2.5 hours, will be reduced to 80 minutes, according to the MOTC.
The issue of how to improve the highway, which was built in 1932, has been a matter of national debate since the 1990s, with environmental concerns and travel safety at the forefront of the controversy.
In 2003, the government put forward a plan to upgrade the highway between Su'ao and Chongde in Hualien to a freeway, but that was shelved amid unrelenting protests by environmentalists.
An alternative idea was floated by the government in 2008 to build a detour road around the section between Nan'ao and Heping where some natural reserves lie, but environmentalists slammed that proposal also, saying it was nothing more than a revival of the Suhua Freeway plan.
It was not until 2010, when 26 people, many of them Chinese tourists, were killed on the road by a landslide during Typhoon Megi that the Suhua Highway improvement project gained traction.
It was finally decided that instead of rebuilding the entire Suhua Highway, improvement work would be done on three sections, and project got off the ground in 2011.
The ongoing NT$49.2 billion (US$1.5 billion) improvement project involves the construction of tunnels and bridges to bypass the three most dangerous sections -- from Su'ao to Dong'ao, from Nan'ao in Yilan to Heping in Hualien, and from Hezhong to Daqingshui in Hualien.
The completed first section in Yilan, from Su'ao to Dong'ao, comprises the Su'ao Tunnel, Baimi Bridge, Yongle Bridge, Dong'ao Tunnel, and Dongyue Tunnel, after which it rejoins the highway.
The most challenging part of the new section was the Dong'ao Tunnel, which runs through a highly complex geological area replete with faults, according to Hsiang Shou-ching (???), a section chief at the Suhua Improvement Engineering Office.
The construction of the Dong'ao Tunnel, which started in 2013 and took three years to complete, was plagued by numerous landslides and flooding, Hsiang said.
In one instance, the flooding was so massive, 12 tons of water per minute was pouring into the construction site, he said.
"It was one step forward, five steps back, on that part of the project," Hsiang told CNA.
After all the challenges and controversies, however, the first phase of the Suhua Highway improvement project is scheduled to open soon and the drivers will decide during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday whether it, in fact, offers a safer way home.
Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel