Misunderstandings among some political commentators have associated those who oppose the construction of the Suhua Freeway with the middle class. While the media play up the issue as a conflict between environmental protection and economic development, politicians continue to play with words, openly talking about the project as still being at the conceptual stage, while busily budgeting for it behind the scenes. The fact that a statement such as “anyone who is not a Hualien resident has no right to oppose the project” can find support makes one worry that Taiwan’s democratic development is deteriorating into tribalism.
Destructive economic growth in the past at the expense of the environment did not result in the equitable distribution of benefits, but instead widened the poverty gap. Sustainable development generating local benefits is now the accepted norm, and ecological tourism is generally a win-win proposition. The prevailing current in environmental management has advanced from end-of-pipe pollution prevention to control at the source. Unfortunately, many still associate environmental protection with simply picking up the trash, believing that the environment will improve alongside the rise in incomes.
vThe main reason why the Suhua Freeway failed to pass its latest environmental impact assessment (EIS) was the unclear positioning of the plan. According to a scenario analysis by the EIS, the Suhua Freeway will only be needed if industry is relocating to the east coast, as tourism and sustainable agriculture rely more on the railway for connection to the rest of the country.
In other words, if the east coast wanted a freeway simply because there are so many on the west coast, then it would also mean ushering in high-pollution industries and dioxin-contaminated sheep to Hualien.
The Suhua Freeway passed an earlier EIS — in 2000, when the nation was busy with elections. It was passed almost surreptitiously as an impromptu motion, and no representatives from the Hualien County Government participated in the review process. Over the years, the developer has not changed its attitude toward environmental assessment.
Although several supplements have been submitted after analyses of environmental differences resulting from drastic changes to the route, the developer continues to cling to a false premise — that about 70 percent of Hualien residents commute to Taipei every day.
The imbalance in regional development requires a comprehensive redrawing of land planning and administrative regions. In the medium term, the government could consider legislation and budget to provide subsidies for east coast residents to travel by train. For now, the government can carry out President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) campaign promise — additional procurement of 72 Taroko Express trains for NT$3.6 billion (US$118.5 million) to increase the frequency of train runs to every 40 minutes and shorten the one-way journey to 110 minutes. As for cargo transportation, stability comes before speed. Even if the Suhua Freeway were built, safety concerns given the number of long tunnels required mean trucks would still have to use the Suhua Highway.
In recent years, the Taiwan Area National Expressway Engineering Bureau and local politicians have focused on the “safety issue,” emphasizing the need for an alternative route given the high number of accidents on the Suhua Highway. But is it impossible for the government to find another solution to the issue in the 10 years it would take to complete construction of the freeway? Why doesn’t the government announce a cross analysis of this section of the road and the reasons for accidents before discussing whether improving the existing Suhua Highway will cost NT$2 billion or NT$20 billion?
There is nothing wrong with demanding a safe road to get home, but the risk is the diagnosis — and thus the treatment— might be wrong. Moreover, there shouldn’t be only one road leading home — and the Suhua Freeway should not be viewed as the only remedy to development of the east coast. A suggested alternative route connecting Nanao (南澳) and Heping (和平) will not be a freeway and will not make use of the funds allocated for freeway construction.
However, if the government were to reallocate the budget to construct a road for residents of Hualien, they should be given multiple options rather than being forced to choose between the Suhua Freeway and no budget at all.
By Pan Han-shen 潘翰聲
Thursday, Jul 24, 2008, Page 8
Pan Han-shen is the secretary-general of the Taiwan Green Party.
Translated by Ted Yang