Taipei, Jan. 6 (CNA) Safer and faster road travel in eastern Taiwan became a reality on Monday following the official opening of the new and improved Suhua Highway connecting Yilan and Hualien counties.
The upgraded road bypasses the most precarious parts of the old highway, mostly through the use of tunnels, which account for more than 60 percent of the new road. It also shortens travel time between the two counties from 159 minutes to 100 minutes, said the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC).
The 38.8-kilometer project covers three sections along Taiwan's rugged east coast -- from Su'ao to Dong'ao in Yilan County, from Nan'ao in Yilan to Heping in Hualien County, and from Hezhong to Daqingshui in Hualien.
The first stretch opened on Feb. 5, 2018, and the second and third road sections opened Monday, just in time to meet travel demand around the Lunar New Year period from Jan. 23-29, the MOTC said.
The old highway has many winding sections perched along cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean that are accident-prone and vulnerable to landslides, resulting in frequent closures.
The need for an upgrade gained urgency in 2010 after Typhoon Megi triggered lethal landslides on the road that led to the deaths of 26 people.
As with the old Suhua highway, the new sections and tunnels will feature a single lane in each direction, with the speed limit ranging from 40-60 kilometers per hour, the ministry said.
With the opening of the new road, the first direct daily bus service between Greater Taipei and Hualien also started Monday, operating every 20-30 minutes on a direct route from Nangang and Banqiao in the Greater Taipei area to Hualien, it said.
On average, the trip will take 3.5 hours one way and cost NT$320 (US$10.5) to NT$352, the ministry said, adding that discounts will be offered in the first month.
For those who still want to enjoy the amazing views of the ocean and Taiwan's eastern coastline by the old Suhua Highway, it will remain open to motorists, with speed limits of 40-50kph.
Attending the inauguration ceremony, Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) said the government will continue to enhance road safety on sections not covered by the improved Suhua Highway.
A Suhua Highway safety program won initial approval from the Cabinet last year, and will involve more road improvements from Dong'ao to Nan'ao, from Heping to Hezhong, and from Daqingshui to Chongde, Su said.
The NT$36 billion program will likely build two short tunnels, or one 9km tunnel between Heren and Chongde, according to MOTC official Hsu Cheng-chang (許鉦漳).
It could take another 10 years to complete the program, which would further shorten the 100-minute travel time between Su'ao and Hualien to less than one hour, Hsu said.
However, before that becomes a reality, the upgraded Suhua Highway must face the challenge of severe traffic congestion, particularly around the Lunar New Year holiday.
Traffic jams have already been reported in downtown Su'ao since the first section opened in 2018, which motorists have to go through to connect to Freeway No. 5.
The freeway, which connects the Greater Taipei area and Yilan, is notorious for holiday tailbacks and it is feared the situation will become even worse as more people use the upgraded Suhua Highway to travel to the east.
In response, Transportation Minister Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) said the government is evaluating the possibility of connecting the freeway and the Suhua Highway, with a review available by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, he stressed that part of the solution lies in smart traffic controls, meaning the ministry will inform motorists the best time to travel, through the use of big data analysis.
The ministry has also announced traffic control measures for the Lunar New Year, as traffic volume on those roads is likely to be greater than in previous years due to higher demand.