By Worthy Shen, Lee Hsin-yin and S.C. Chang
Taipei, (CNA) ─ The first section of an improvement project for the Suhua Highway, the road that cuts through the mountains along Taiwan’s east coast, opened Monday despite a protest by motorcyclists, who are not allowed to use the highway.
The new 9.7-kilometer stretch from Su’ao to Dong’ao in Yilan County, which opened at 4 p.m., drew protest from a few dozen motorcyclists in downtown Su’ao, who demanded treatment equal to that of drivers of small vehicles.
Chanting “we also need a safe road home,” supporters of the Taiwan Scooter Road Rights Promotion Association, which organized the protest, said the government is contradicting itself by protecting those with small vehicles but leaving those with motorcycles behind, even though the latter are more vulnerable to unsafe road conditions.
Association CEO Lin Yung-hsuan (林詠軒) said the measure is very unfair to motorcyclists and demanded that the government lift the restriction.
Defying police, seven motorcyclists did manage to ride through the “restricted” section and were later fined.
According to Chen Jui-chi (陳瑞基), chief of the Su’ao Police Precinct, tickets ranging between NT$900 and NT$1,800 were issued to the seven individuals as well as 19 other protesters who broke through police lines.
Under the current regulations, only small vehicles are allowed on the new section, although the Ministry of Transportation and Communications said it will carry out further evaluations at three- to six-month intervals to consider whether to allow bigger vehicles such as buses and trucks to travel on the new section of road.
In response to the protesters, the Directorate General of Highways (DGH) cited an environmental impact assessment, saying that motorcyclists would not be able to withstand the long tunnels on the section either physically or psychologically.
There are three tunnels on the new road section, the longest one of which, the Dong’ao Tunnel, reaches 3.36 kilometers.
Poor air quality, noise and high temperatures will have a negative impact on motorcyclists, while there are also “uncertain safety concerns and management risks,” according to the assessment.
DGH official Chen Ying-fu (陳營富) said, however, that under extreme conditions, motorcyclists will be allowed to use the highway.
If there are natural disasters or traffic accidents that block the old section for more than four hours in the near future, the improved stretch could serve as an alternative for drivers of other vehicles, Chen said.
However, motorcyclists will have to travel in groups for better traffic management by the DGH, while trucks and buses will have to travel at specific intervals to avoid damage to the road because of their heavier weight, according to Chen.
The full Suhua Highway overhaul project will be completed by the end of 2019, by which time the travel time between Yilan and Hualien, which now takes about 2.5 hours, will be reduced to 80 minutes, according to the transport ministry.
Travel time on the just-completed first section will only take 10 minutes instead of the 30 minutes it took on the old road.
The NT$49.2 billion (US$1.5 billion) improvement project involves the construction of tunnels and bridges to bypass the three most dangerous sections — from Su’ao to Dong’ao, from Nan’ao in Yilan County to Heping in Hualien County, and from Hezhong to Daqingshui, also in Hualien County.