Builders of the Hsuehshan (
The reason for the work stoppage was once again the appearance of water, the source of which has puzzled the development team, springing forth unpredictably and freezing the smiles that only recently appeared on team members' faces during the decade-old task of boring out the tunnel.
The boring of the Hsuehshan Tunnel -- the centerpiece of the 31km Beiyi Freeway (北宜快速路) connecting Taipei and the eastern city of Ilan, was suspended nearly a year ago mainly because of water.
Year-round, regardless of the season, water has continued to inundate the construction site at the rate of 150 to 200 liters per second.
Seeking to learn the source of the water, the construction team had the water carbon-dated. They discovered that some of the water at the construction site is about 4,800 years old. No word yet, though, on where it is coming from.
The 12.9km tunnel -- one of the most important development projects ever initiated by the KMT and one whose completion Premier Yu Shyi-kun has placed high on his Cabinet's agenda -- is set to open in 2005.
If work remains on schedule, the journey between Taipei and Ilan will be reduced from the current two hours to just 40 minutes.
The Beiyi Freeway is considered a major breakthrough for Ilan's transportation and road development, which has been called the "back of the mountain."
Because of the high-mountain barrier, people from Ilan have had to trek along the coastal highway to Taipei or by lengthier and more treacherous mountain routes.
On a recent inspection tour of the various construction sites along the freeway project, Kuo Yao-chi (
Kuo praised the endeavor and the diligence of the construction team and said that her inspections have allowed her to gain a better understanding of the difficulties the team has had to overcome.
When completed, the Hsuehshan Tunnel will be Asia's longest and the world's third-longest after a tunnel linking Switzerland and Italy and another that links Switzerland and France.
Development of the tunnel, which began in July 1991, has been a trying task, the story of which could easily fill a thick book.
Along with the more predictable difficulties of building on mountainous terrain, the unique geological factors in areas the tunnel is passing through have tested the mettle of construction teams.
The freeway development team is an experienced one, with seasoned engineers and workers from the Ret-Ser Engineering Agency (
The team originally planned to complete the penetration of the mammoth Hsuehshan -- the mountain backbone of northern Taiwan that divides the Taipei Basin in the north and the Lanyang Plain in the east -- by the end of 2000.