Taiwan tunnel speeds rural change

It's a water-cooler view to die for: towering mountains, low-rise farmhouses, and a furrowed onion field. Not exactly a downtown location, but for Huang Sheng-yuan and his team of architects, Taiwan's pastoral east coast is the perfect spot for their office.

Their work is aimed at creating a balance between the rural rhythms of Ilan and its verdant hinterland, and the onrushing modern world that lurks just over the mountains. They strive to create architecture that breathes life into towns and respects boundaries of man and nature.

A Yale-trained architect, Mr. Huang reflects Taiwan's maturing society, where a growing number of voices are cautioning against overdevelopment and the notion that poured concrete always spells progress.

But Huang and his team may face their toughest challenge in the shape of Taiwan's newest engineering wonder: Hsuehshan, an eight-mile road tunnel that took 15 years to build and opened to traffic last month. It slices through the jagged peaks that separate Ilan from the capital, Taipei, and links to a new southbound highway that rises above the rice paddies.

The tunnel is the longest in Asia, a fact that's not lost on Taiwanese anxious to put their diplomatically challenged country on the map. Not coincidentally, Taiwan has the world's tallest building. Both could lose their crowns next year, though, to longer, taller structures built in – where else? – neighboring China.

Regardless of who holds the record, a road trip from Taipei that used to take two hours on winding two-lane tarmac is now under an hour.

Around 15 minutes of that is spent cruising through Hsuehshan, which has four lanes. There's little fanfare on the approach, though the speed limit signs drop to 70 k.p.h. (43 m.p.h.), from the usual 110 k.p.h. (68 m.p.h.), then you enter the gently curving fluorescent-lit tunnel. If you turn on your car radio, a special announcement offers safety instructions, a summary of the tunnel dimensions, and a "drive carefully" sign-off.

Since the tunnel opened, day-trippers to Ilan are arriving in droves. Traffic is up 20 percent on weekends. Private vacation homes are popping up, and dozens of new hotels have opened.

Local officials, who are promoting investment in tourism and high-tech industries, say that Ilan's relaxed lifestyle and clean environment is paying off. "We're unusual, because we've preserved our landscape and traditions, not like the west coast," says Chen Te-shing, deputy director of business and travel developments for Ilan county.

That isolation is what drew Huang to Ilan in 1993, after a decade of study, work and teaching in the US.

His 20 or so employees live in a nearby dormitory and cycle to their air- conditioned, broadband-linked office – once a shoe factory – through emerald-green rice fields tended by farmers. Some take a 50 percent salary cut to move to Ilan from Taipei, and the trade-off is lifestyle. "Not everyone wants to make money. We have different priorities in Ilan," says Huang.

He worries that the tunnel and six-lane highway will promote suburban sprawl and tourist eyesores in go-slow Ilan, and instill a car-culture that puts convenience first. One of his pet projects is to convince local authorities to create natural buffers between urban centers and make them attractive places to live.

At a wind-whipped sandy beach, visitors praise the tunnel for bringing Ilan's natural charms closer. Local residents are delighted by the tourist dollars, but say some hotels are losing out to day-trippers as the journey time to Taipei is cut.

Oscar Feng, a student, is excited by the easier access to Taipei, but worries that more visitors means more congestion in his hometown. "It's really hard to strike a balance between development and natural scenery. But we need development, that's for sure," he says.

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