Tue, Dec 14, 2004 - Page 2 News List

Officials optimistic over Suao-to-Hualien freeway

INFRASTRUCTUREDespite disagreement between different government agencies, the national freeway authority said that that it will push ahead with the project

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Transportation officials yesterday expressed optimism over the controversial Suao-Hualien freeway (蘇花高速公路) project, which has been halted for a year under pressure from local environmentalist groups.

"I believe the environmental impact assessments will be passed soon," Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Ling-san (林陵三) said in the legislature's first post-election session yesterday.

The ministry yesterday proposed a NT$3.3 billion budget for the construction of the freeway next year.

"The highway project has been initiated to boost the local economy. We never said that we will abandon the project," Lin said.

The contested NT$96.2 billion project has been put on hold after Premier Yu Shyi-kun announced its suspension in December last year, after Hualien County Commissioner Hsieh Shen-shan (謝深山) gave voice to local environmentalists' strong opposition.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) demanded that the freeway authority, the Taiwan Area National Expressway Engineering Bureau, detail the possible environmental impact and "give serious thought" to an alternative development project, such as the Hualien-Taitung Express Train project initiated by the Council of Economic Planning and Development.

Despite the freeway bill increasingly becoming a battleground for different government agencies, the bureau said that it will push ahead with the project.

"We have done comprehensive geological and hydrological surveys on the areas where the highway will pass through. The EPA's review is part of administrative procedures. The construction of the highway is simply a matter of time," bureau director-general Bane Chiou (邱琳濱) said.

According to the bureau, the construction companies involved -- Taiwan's Longda Construction Co and the Japanese firm Maeda Kaisha -- can legally demand compensation if the bureau fails to break ground for the project by early 2006.

However, academics said the economic cost could be even higher if the freeway is built.

"Every Taiwanese citizen will be paying between NT$200,000 and NT$300,000 for the highway. Does the government tell the people about the price? This only indicates the government's fiscal irresponsibility," said Hsia Yue-joe (夏禹九), the director of the Natural Resource Institute at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien.

Hsia said the freeway project was no more than a rough election gambit when President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) stumped for You Ying-lung (游盈隆) in last year's Hualien by-election.

"It is a leftover from local politicking. Who decided to build the highway? The president. Instead of a bottom-up approach to formulate the policy, the government only plays up the project to woo voters," he said.

Although both elected legislators in the Hualien constituency, the Democratic Progressive Party's nominee Lu Po-chi (盧博基) and the People First Party's Fu Kun-ci (傅崑萁), endorsed the development project in their campaign platforms, Hsia cast doubts on whether they represent all Hualien's residents.

"The voting rate in Hualien plummeted to lower than 50 percent, the lowest in the whole nation. It shows that not all Hualien people want the freeway. It is just a question of whose voice gets heard," he said.

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