Mon, Feb 21, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Road threatens Pinglin's livelihood

BEATEN TRACK Since only locals will be able to use the Pinglin interchange on the new Ilan expressway, residents see their tourist trade as likely to vanish

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

The completed Shihding-Pinglin section of the Taipei-Ilan Expressway will be open to local villagers during the lantern festival Wednesday, saving about 30 minutes travel time for around 16,000 drivers in the mountain village of tea farmers, transportation officials said yesterday.

The Shihding-Pinglin section connects the Formosa Freeway to the Taipei-Ilan Expressway, a 55-km long highway which cuts through the rugged Snow Mountain Range, traverses river valleys, bypasses the idyllic Pinglin township, and finally runs into Ilan county.

Although the entire route of the expressway will not be open to the general public before the end of this year, Pinglin villagers will be able to travel between their hometown and Taipei via the completed section soon.

"The Ministry of Transportation and Communications will begin the third stage of road testing today. Once the expressway's safety is confirmed, the Shihding-Pinglin section will be open next week," said Bane Chiou (邱琳濱), the director-general of the Taiwan Area National Expressway Engineering Bureau (TANEEB), the transportation authority that oversees the expressway's construction.

Pinglin villagers have mixed feelings about the new route, however. It might have been a three-hour crawl along the old Taipei-Ilan Highway between the two cities but at least the road went thropugh Pinglin itself, bringing the tea-growing village significant revenue. But the new NT$60.1 billion expressway, which reduces the time between the two cities to 30 minutes, byapsses the village and residents worry about a loss of earnings.

Adding to their plight is the news that the general public will be barred from using the new expressway's Pinglin interchange, a decision actually made by the Environmental Protection Administration.

The EPA required the TANEEB to open the Pinglin Interchange -- which cuts across the water catchment area for the Feitsui reservoir (翡翠水庫) -- only to Pinglin residents.

Over the past few years, tea farmers who account for 80 percent of the total population of Pinglin have protested against the restriction. In the hilly township of 6,000 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.

For these tea farmers, opening the Shihding-Pinglin section only to residents does not help their business.

"For the Taipei-Ilan Expressway, we [Pinglin villagers] gave up our living space and endured a lot of inconvenience and pollution brought on by the construction. The right to the expressway is our most basic right, not a gift from the government," the head of Pinglin Township Liang Jin-sheng (梁金生) was quoted as saying earlier this month.

Despite the villagers' constant protests, the TANEEB is siding with the EPA to bar the public from the Pinglin interchange and minimize traffic pollution.

"The villagers should understand one thing: if your tea tourism could really charm visitors, people will rush to sip your tea regardless of an extra two hours of traveling," Chou said.

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