Pinglin (坪林), a small town in Taipei County known for its tea production, used to be filled with tourists on weekends as well as on holidays, despite the fact that the county government limited passenger car access to the area.
Wang Chien-hua (王建驊), secretary of the Pinglin Township Office, told the Taipei Times that back then each shop in the downtown area could potentially haul in daily revenue of between NT$50,000 and NT$60,000 during the Lunar New Year holidays.
But everything changed when the Chiang Wei-shui Freeway (National Freeway No. 5) opened last year.
Wang said that the town has lost 70 to 80 percent of its visitors after the freeway became fully operational.
"Nowadays, it is so convenient to travel between Taipei and Ilan," Wang said. "We have lost many tourists who used to just stop by."
Currently, the freeway is only open to passenger cars.
To respond to the concerns of those in Pinglin and other affected towns, Minister of Transportation and Communications Tsai Duei (蔡堆) promised at the end of last year that his ministry would consider opening the freeway to freeway buses or tour buses.
However, this has yet to become the reality as the Executive Yuan has not approved the plan.
For towns like Pinglin, however, the matter is urgent.
"We hope the ministry will do as it said and arrange a route that allows buses to come down to Pinglin," Wang said. "Otherwise, we are just a deserted, isolated place where nobody can come."
The same conundrum also appeared in some of the scenic areas along the Northeast Coast, which stretches from Rueifang (
Statistics from the Tourism Bureau show that approximately 700,000 tourists visited the Northeast Coast in July last year. But the number dropped the following month to about 330,000 after the freeway opened. From September last year until last month, the number failed to climb to more than 300,000.
The bureau said in a report on Friday that more tourists now enter the Northeast Coast scenic areas through the Chiang Wei-shui Freeway rather than the coastal highway (Provincial Highway 2).
Fewer tourists now visit the northern end of the Northeast Coast, including Bitou Cape (鼻頭角), Longdongwan (龍洞灣) and Longdong South Coast Park (龍洞南口海洋公園).
Instead, more tourists visit the south end of the Northeast Coast, including Wushih Harbor (
As a result, restaurants and hotels near the northern end of the Northeast Coast have also suffered from the decline in tourists, with sales decreasing 20 percent to 30 percent on average.
In addition to the impact on tourism, the operation of the freeway has generated a new set of traffic issues.
Traffic jams before the entrance to the Hsuehshan Tunnel have been common whenever the nation celebrates major national holidays.
The congestion has prompted some to describe National Freeway No. 5 as a "gigantic parking lot" on holidays.
Exhaust from the motor vehicles waiting to pass through the tunnel has also made the freeway a target for many environmentalists.
A report released by the National Expressway Engineering Bureau attempted to dismiss these concerns.
The report showed that 85 percent of weekend traffic on Provincial Highway No. 9 has shifted to the newly built freeway. The same situation has occurred in the Provincial Highway No. 2 as well, where 35 percent of weekday traffic has been diverted to the freeway.
But the Expressway Engineering Bureau found in the past year that the freeway did not damage air or water quality.
Water quality in Feitsui Reservoir, in fact, improved after the construction of the freeway, it said.
Environmentalists challenged the bureau's results.
Tony Chou (
Green Party Secretary-General Pan Han-sheng (
Pan said while the freeway appears to have created wealth for Ilan County, it has also had negative effects, such as farmland being turned into housing developments.
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