Outgoing Transportation Minister Lin Ling-san (林陵三) yesterday proudly announced his success in completing the Taipei-Yilan Expressway, even though the Hsuehshan Tunnel sitting in the middle of the freeway had yet to open to traffic.
"I finally reached the goal of completing the construction of the Taipei-Yilan Expressway," Lin said at a ceremony marking the opening of the southern section of the freeway, which connects Toucheng to Suao.
The ceremony was also attended by outgoing Premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), Democratic Progressive Party Chairman Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃), and Yilan County Magistrate Lu Kuo-hua.
The outgoing minister said he had promised Yu, who served as Yilan County magistrate, and Premier Hsieh that the freeway would open before the Lunar New Year, and had now carried out the plan.
Shortening the drive
The 55-kilometer roadway, also known as National Freeway No. 5, will dramatically shorten travel time between Taipei and Yilan to about 30 minutes once it is completed.
The trip currently takes motorists around two hours, traveling either along the northeastern coastal highway or on the Peiyi highway that winds through the mountains separating Taipei and Yilan counties.
Yilan County residents will benefit from yesterday's opening of the southern half of the freeway, which allows drivers to go from Toucheng in northern Yilan to Suao near its southern border in less than 20 minutes.
But Ministry of Transportation and Communications officials, including Lin, remained vague on when the 12.9-kilometer Hsuehshan Tunnel - the fifth longest in the world - would be ready for traffic.
The ministry at first hoped to complete the project by the end of 2005, but when that deadline could not be met, it set the beginning of the Lunar New Year as its new target.
The MOTC's Expressway Engineering Bureau also failed to meet that goal, as many experts had predicted, after it was unable to resolve a number of safety hazards marring the progress of the tunnel's construction, including ventilation issues.
Lin yesterday reiterated his refusal to set any new timetable for when the tunnel would open, but other MOTC officials suggested the entire freeway would be ready to go within the first half of 2006.
Hsieh said he felt a little sad at yesterday's ribbon-cutting ceremony, knowing that he was about to bid goodbye (at least for now) to public service. But he insisted on taking advantage of the occasion to recognize Lin's contribution to the extremely challenging freeway project, particularly the Hsueshan Tunnel.
"Lin deserves credit for the completion of the Hsuehshan tunnel, which has been dubbed by some as the 'tunnel beneath troubled waters' due to the engineering difficulties encountered during its construction," Hsieh said.
Lin expressed his appreciation for the 25 engineers who were killed in working on the project. He also expressed regret, however, that the entire freeway failed to open as scheduled after inspectors raised safety concerns over the tunnel.
The highway and road network found in western Taiwan is far more developed than that in the eastern part of the island, which many believe has left the eastern coastal counties of Yilan, Hualien and Taitung lagging economically.
When completed, the Peiyi Expressway - with exits at Toucheng, Yilan City, Luodong, and Suao - will help boost Yilan's economic growth, Lin said.
The government has also touted the project as making travel between Taipei and Yilan more predictable, as traffic is often cut off between the two points during typhoons or heavy rains.
Construction on the Hsuehshan Tunnel, Asia's longest, began in 1994, but recent safety tests found a considerable number of flaws, forcing its opening to be postponed.
Engineering experts last week said some construction work inside the tunnel
had yet to be completed, including its mechanical, electrical, fire-fighting, ventilation and monitoring systems.
Meanwhile, Lin threw his full support behind a campaign to designate the Taipei-Yilan freeway as "Chiang Wei-shui Memorial Expressway" in honor of Chiang Wei-shui, a native of Yilan County who was known as a historic trailblazer in Taiwan's democracy movement during Japanese colonial rule.
Outgoing Premier Hsieh and DPP Chairman-elect Yu also lent their support to the campaign, saying Chiang had contributed much to Taiwan's cultural and democratic development.
Chiang, a physician and forerunner of the Taiwanese nationalist movement under Japanese colonial rule, was born in 1891. From 1921, he fought against the Japanese colonial regime by uniting students and social leaders under the Taiwan Cultural Association and cultivating their sense of national identity.
He was first jailed by the Japanese in 1923. While in prison, he wrote extensively on humanitarian issues and opposed Japanese oppression.
In 1927, he established Taiwan's first political party, the Taiwan People's Party. Subsequently, he also consolidated Taiwan's labor movements by forming the Taiwan Labor Alliance.
Chiang was incarcerated a dozen times during his lifetime. He was lauded as "the savior of the Taiwan people" when he died in 1931 at the age of 40.