Thu, Nov 11, 2004 - Page 2 News List

Pinglin dispute blocking completion of highway

CLASHING INTERESTS Local tea farmers want tourists to be able to exit the Taipei-Ilan expressway near their village. But environmentalists want to minimize traffic

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

A dispute involving tea-growing locals of the mountain village of Pinglin, the national highway-building bureau, and the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) is putting a roadblock in the government's plan to open an interchange at the village next month, threatening to dash the government's promise to open the entire Expressway by the end of next year.

The dispute pits local residents who see growing "tea tourism" as vital to their economy against the EPA and environmentalists, who are concerned about pollution in a crucial water-conservation area nearby.

In the latest twist to the dispute, Pinglin residents earlier this month vetoed the Taiwan Power Company's plan to set up two pylons on the township's public property. These two pylons are necessary in order to lay down three-mile cables connecting transformer stations in Pinglin and at the interchange. Without the two pylons to hook up the power supply lines, the Expressway will remain blacked out.

"If the dispute cannot be solved soon, the power supply infrastructure will lag behind schedule. The whole project may be delayed again," said Bane Chiou (邱琳濱) of the Taiwan Area National Expressway Engineering Bureau, the authority which oversees the highway construction.

The locals will only give a green light to pylon construction when the government agrees that the interchange will be open to the general public -- tourists, most importantly -- and not just limited to local traffic, despite the EPA's strong objection.

For the past few years, Pinglin residents have been protesting against limiting the interchange only to locals. Since the Expressway, once completed, will curtail the three-hour-long crawl on the narrow, winding Taipei-Ilan Freeway to a smooth 30-minute ride, the village's prime location as a midway station on the old freeway could wane.

Now, many tea farmers, who account for 80 percent of the village's population, fear they will lose their livelihood altogether if tourists and commuters are blocked from entering Pinglin through the new Expressway.

"The government invests in the expressway with taxpayers' money. It is paved through people's toil and travail," said the head of Pinglin Township Liang Jin-sheng (梁金生). "There is no reason why the Expressway should benefit Ilan but leave out Pinglin."

Liang is worried that the blocked interchange will hurt the village's tea trade and nip in the budding tea tourism at Pinglin. In the hilly township of six thousand people, local entrepreneurs have opened tea shops to cater to thirsty travelers and deliver tea products to every corner of the island. Famed for its delicate aroma, Pinglin's tea earns the village NT$500 million every year.

Liang and township representatives are eager to force the government to yield before the legislative elections next month. Not surprisingly, the three legislative candidates in Pinglin, Chen Yong-fu (陳永福), Lin Te-fu (林德福), and Cheng San-yuan (鄭三元) have all called for the interchange to be open to all traffic instead of only to locals.

But strong local interests clashes with broader environmental concerns. Because the Pinglin Interchange crosses a water-conservation area for the Feitsui Reservoir (翡翠水庫) which supplies the 2.3 million Taipei County residents, the highway bureau had to file a series of environmental impact reports to the EPA. In 2002, last year, and this February, the Bureau had applied to the EPA to open the interchange. Each time the EPA turned down their plan, underscoring the bureau and local government's inability to prevent water pollution.

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