The Suhua Highway (Provincial Highway No. 9) is one of the most beautiful drives in the world, with steep, looming mountains on one side and equally steep cliffs dropping into the ocean on the other. Beautiful for passengers, that is, since the 118km long highway’s twists and turns and oft-damaged roadway make it more of a white-knuckle experience for drivers.
The highway is also one of the nation’s deadliest, with more than 1,000 people killed on it over the past decade. Most of the danger comes from the narrowness of the road and the rugged terrain. Combine that with truck drivers who barrel along or impatient drivers who try to pass on what is little more than a one-lane road in many stretches, and you have a recipe for accidents. Add to that heavy rain and winds brought by typhoons and monsoons and there is the all too real risk of landslides, like the one that proved fatal to almost two dozen people on Thursday last week (technically most are still listed as missing).
Most of the missing are Chinese tourists, part of a contingent of 274 Chinese who were among the 32 vehicles and 400 people trapped by several major landslides between Suao (蘇澳) and Dongao (東澳) in Yilan County. The landslides also left another 500m section of the roadbed 20m lower than it is supposed to be.
Already under fire for not closing off the highway on Oct. 21, the government is under enormous pressure to find the missing tourists, repair the damaged sections (before the promised Nov. 20 date) and prevent a reoccurrence of the disaster. Cue the Mission Impossible theme music.
The Directorate General of Highways has already finalized an eight-year, NT$40 billion (US$1.24 billion) plan to improve the highway by building a 3.3km tunnel between Suao and Dongao, two tunnels connecting Nanao (南澳) and Heping (和平) and a tunnel between Heping and Chongde (崇德). However, the plan must still pass an environmental impact assessment and win Executive Yuan approval before construction can start.
The concern is that the Oct. 21 disaster will trigger a rush to judgment on the plan, which was drafted as a replacement for the highly controversial Suhua Freeway project. That was finally shot down by a combination of environmental, geological and cost concerns, after a decade of contention. Many of those same concerns will be raised about the highway improvement plan.
East coast residents have long demanded better transport links to improve their quality of life and boost the region’s economy, which for decades appeared little more than an afterthought to the government’s push to develop the western plains area. The residents of the east coast deserve such improvements — the question is what form they will take.
Carving more tunnels through already fragile mountainsides would not only place construction and road crews at risk, the tunnels would impinge on Aboriginal reserves, threaten flora and fauna and eliminate the views of the coastline that make the three-hour highway drive so amazing. Keeping the road more open to the elements would require more aggressive safety monitoring and more frequent road closures during bad weather, which would alienate local residents and frustrate tourists. Then the cost of maintaining the roadway must be factored in, since the region is pummeled annually by typhoons that often leave Taipei unscathed.