Premier Yu Shyi-kun traveled to Ilan County yesterday to inspect construction of the freeway connecting Taipei City and Ilan County.
Yu's inspection tour focused on the construction of the 12.9km Hsuehshan Tunnel (雪山燧道) -- the centerpiece of the 31km Beiyi Freeway (北宜高速公路), which, when it opens in 2005, will reduce the journey between Taipei and Ilan from two hours to just 40 minutes.
Yu has placed the completion of the Beiyi Freeway high on his Cabinet's development agenda.
The freeway is considered to be a major breakthrough in transportation and road development for the eastern county of Ilan, which has been called the "back of the mountain."
Because of the barriers of high mountains, people from Ilan have had to travel a long way along the coastal highway to Taipei or use winding mountain highways which are more dangerous and can take even longer.
In a recent inspection tour of the construction sites for the freeway, Kuo Yao-chi (
Kuo praised the endeavor and diligence of the construction team and said that her inspections have allowed her to gain a full understanding of the difficulties the team has had to overcome.
When completed, the Hsuehshan Tunnel will be the world's third-longest, after a tunnel linking Switzerland and Italy and another that links Switzerland and France.
Development of the Hsuehshan Tunnel, which began in July 1991, is a trying task that could be told in a thick book. Besides difficult mountainous topography, other unique geological factors in areas where the tunnel is supposed to pass are proving challenging for the tunnel builders.
The Beiyi Freeway development team is experienced with seasoned engineers and workers from the Ret-Ser Engineering Agency, which is best remembered for its building of major highways and bridges in the deserts of Saudi Arabia; developers from the Taiwan Area National Expressway Engineering Bureau under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications; civil engineering professors from National Taiwan University; and engineering consultants from Japan and various nations from the West.
The team originally planned to penetrate the mammoth Hsuehshan (Snow Mountain) -- the backbone of all mountains in northern Taiwan that divides the Taipei Basin in the north of the island and the Lanyang Plain in the east -- at the end of the last millennium.
The designers and engineers gave up their original schedule five years later -- after making progress of about 1.9km in four years, with a tank-like TBM excavator/bulldozer machine being swallowed by falling mud, rocks and tremendous amount of water.
In the first two years, there was hardly any progress made as the team was stopped by Hsuehshan's special geological formation of a series of faults and merciless flooding.
Regardless of the season, floods would inundate the construction sites at 120 liters to 150 liters per second. An engineer jokingly said the team should have shifted its operations to tapping the flood water and selling bottled mineral water.
The team was puzzled as to the source of the water. After having the water carbon-dated, it was found that some of the water was about 4,800 years old.
After five years of painstaking attempts, which featured only a singular pattern of "going forward, surging water and collapse" and because of fears that the underground water could be affected negatively and could take thousands of years to replenish, the team decided to have the original tunnel development maps changed.