Suhua Highway Improvement Project Passes EIA:
The Problems Are Just Beginning
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
November 3, 2010
The EPA recently convened a meeting of experts on the Su-Hua Highway Improvement Plan (henceforth referred to as the Suhua Improvement). Nearly ten thousand residents from Hualien and Taitung traveled to Taipei to protest. Under pressure a resolution was "conditionally passed." The EPA promised to convene a meeting in three to five days. Chances of passage are high. Construction may begin by the end of the year.
Advocates began promoting the Suhua Improvement in November 2009. The environmental impact statement was submitted to the EPA for EIA review toward the end of September. The first meeting of the Suhua Improvement ad hoc group was held on October 18. EIA members had already raised concerns about road safety and the quality of highway maintenance. They even held a second ad hoc group meeting on the very same day. They set a record for the swiftest passage of an EIA in history.
There is nothing wrong with responding to public demands. But the Suhua Improvement is 38.4 km long. It includes 23.8 km of tunnels and 8.6 km of bridges. Eight tunnels make up 62% of the total length. The longest tunnel is 7.9 km. The shortest is 0.3 km. The Suhua Improvement crosses 11 faultlines and 17 fracture zones. The project involves a high degree of difficulty. The slightest mistake is likely to lead to the same problems encountered during the excavation of the Hsuehshan Tunnel. Therefore representatives of environmental groups do not oppose the construction of the Suhua Improvement. But they are concerned that the improvements may be incomplete. The EPA plans to convene an EIA within three to five days. Can it really gather all the relevant information in such a short time? One wonders. We must point out that the concerns of environmental groups are not unfounded. No matter how urgent the Suhua Improvement might be, the required procedure must be observed. Haste makes waste. Especially since the region is geologically unstable. This makes caution even more essential.
Yesterday the Supreme Administrative Court revoked the EIA for the Taichung Science Park. One of the reasons it cited for the revocation was that the public must not be deprived of its right to participate during the EIA. Therefore the EIA will undergo a second phase review, during which the public will be allowed to participate more fully. If the wishes of the Supreme Administrative Court are honored, will passage of the first stage lead to a reiteration of the Hsuehshan Tunnel fiasco? This is something the EPA must consider.
Even assuming the Suhua Improvement begins smoothly at the end of the year, the construction period will last five to six years. During this period, how will residents of Hualien reach the outside world? That too will test the wisdom of the transportion sector.
The recent Su-Hua Highway landslide caused traffic considerable inconvenience. The government should be consider other transportation systems in its effort to improve access to the Hualien and Taitung region. It should not focus on the Suhua Improvement alone. It must develop a variety of transportation systems, including highway, rail, maritime, and air transportion. When highways once again experience landslides, rail or maritime transport will provide emergency alternatives. The government must avoid focusing exclusively on the construction of any particular transportion system. This will help reduce the overhead cost of ensuring traffic safety.
Highway accidents on Taiwan kill 3600 people each year. But few die from railway accidents. Railways are clearly much safer than highways. Therefore, besides improving the safety of the Suhua Highway, the most important issue is how to increase railway transportation capacity. For example, the purchase of Taroko railway cars increased the number of runs to Hualien and Taitung. This quickly resolved the long term problem of inconvenient access to eastern Taiwan. We may even wish to consider developing railway freight operations to the region.
In the past, Hualien/Taitung Railway System Improvement Projects were the responsibilty of the Taiwan Railways Administration. The TRA is an isolated operating unit. It must be self-financing. Under such constraints, improvements to the Hualien Railway can be made only as part of routine operations. The transportion of locally grown fruits and vegetables to the north is impossible due to the lack of refrigerator cars. Therefore, we propose that the government approach the problem at the national level. It should make the Ministry of Transportation directly responsible for the system. The RDEC should be made responsible for supervision and evaluation. Only then can it effectively promote the Hualien/Taitung Railway System, maritime transportation, and a wide variety of transportation systems.
Once construction begins on the Shuhua Improvement, completion will take at least five or six years. During the interim the railway system will be out of operation. Hualien will find it difficult to connect with the outside world. The government agencies responsible will need to prepare for the worst. Now that the Suhua Improvement has passed EIA, its problems are just beginning.