End martial law above the skies of Taipei City.
That phrase, echoing the Martial Law era which overshadowed the whole country’s society for four decades, reflects the view that the skies over the capital have been taken prisoner and are unable to be free because of the planes landing at and taking off from Taipei Songshan Airport.
The phrase is not new, but it was mentioned again on June 8 by Taipei City Vice Mayor Charles Lin (林欽榮) at the start of a two-day forum about that other airport, Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.
The continued existence of Taipei Songshan Airport first became a topic of controversy during the 2002 campaign for mayor of Taipei, when opposition Democratic Progressive Party candidate Lee Ying-yuan (李應元) voiced the idea for a Taiwanese version of New York’s Central Park.
Lee lost that election, and 15 years on, he serves as the country’s environment minister, but little was done over the time since he first mentioned the issue to prepare for the eventuality of a change, even though the topic surfaced again and again, forcing policymakers to keep addressing demands for an eventual removal of Taipei Songshan Airport.
Public safety and an improved environment have been the chief arguments of those campaigning for the closure of the airport.
While residents coming to live in the area knew beforehand that it could not be completely quiet, the transformation of Songshan from a basically domestic airport to an international one focused on China and East Asia has caused more intensive usage and eventually also more risk and noise for area residents.
On February 4, 2015, a TransAsia Airways flight to Kinmen got into trouble shortly after takeoff from Songshan. The footage of the plane hitting a taxi and then the elevated road before crashing into a river went around the world, and the death toll of 43 gave efforts to close the airport renewed impetus.
For those who were still on the sidelines, the crash served as a wakeup call that living around the airport was definitely not a safe option.
Another argument in favor of moving flights from Songshan to Taoyuan is the recent completion of the Mass Rapid Transit line connecting the heart of the capital, in this case the Taipei Railway Station area, with Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. For road travelers, the 2013 Wugu-Yangmei Overpass on the National Sun Yat-sen Freeway improved the traffic situation, cutting down the level of opposition to having to travel to Taoyuan instead of Songshan.
In addition, Taoyuan is starting up work on the construction of a third terminal, which should also help in welcoming the original passengers for Songshan.
Of course, not all the voices clamoring for the closure of Songshan do this for altruistic motives, since some come from people with close ties to the construction sector, which smells another opportunity for massive building projects, for business parks and more concrete jungle rather than parks filled with trees and ponds.
The government will have to be strong to resist calls to fill the freed-up space with more shopping malls, hotels, luxury apartments and financial centers.
Yet, despite the growing consensus in favor of a “Taipei Central Park,” some parts of the government are still trying to delay the project.
At Thursday’s forum, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) came up with the statement that shutting down Songshan would be impossible to realize within the first 20 years.
It compared Songshan to Singapore’s Changi Airport, which is somehow different, since Singapore is an island city state which does not have much choice about where to build an airport.
The government needs to come up with an impartial cost-benefit evaluation of both options, leaving the present situation in place, or closing down Songshan Airport and moving its traffic to Taoyuan. All elements should be taken into account, from the environment and the impact on road traffic to the financial dimensions and the results for employment and business in both areas.
Based on that study, the government should design a concrete action plan to resolve the situation and bring a solution that puts residents first, preferably not letting the issue fester for another 20 years.