The British government says it wants to build the country’s longest tunnel as a way to resolve traffic jams on one of its busiest highways. The problem, however, is that it will run near Stonehenge, a world heritage site.
While some preservationists praised Monday's announcement, saying the 1.8 miles tunnel will unclog the landscape around the stones, others fear the governments efforts are not ambitious enough. At stake, is the future of a 5,000-year-old site, visited by more than a million tourists every year.
The A303 is “in desperate need of modernization,” said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, during an official visit to the site.
For decades, governments have been battling with preservationists over plans for building a tunnel, and in 2007, projects were scrapped for budgetary reasons.
"These roads are forever clogged up with traffic, often closed in bad weather, and just not built to deal with modern demands,” said Clegg.
Talking about the specific Stonehenge project, Clegg said it was “probably the biggest change to the environment around Stonehenge since the Stone Age because clearly when it was constructed 3,000 years ago it wasn't planned to be right next to a very, very busy and over-congested A-road."
Preservationists from the National Trust, who manage the site, are pleased with the project, even though they’ve been waiting for it for as long as 50 years.
“This time there seems to be a commitment from the government to make it happen,” said Phil McMahon, inspector of ancient monuments at the National Trust speaking to ABC News. “Infrastructure projects are the flavor of the month. The government sees it as way to unlock the economy.”
For those visiting, McMahon believes a tunnel will make a big difference.
“Currently, two thirds of site are not accessible because it’s too dangerous to cross the highway. By removing the road, you reconnect the land with the site itself,” he said.
"In 10 years time, instead of visiting stones next to a congested road, you’ll be in a completely different and silent setting,” he added.
English Heritage and National Trust as guardians of Stonehenge and its World Heritage Site, see this announcement as a “truly momentous decision” in the modern history of one of the most famous places in the world.
“The importance of this announcement today cannot be overstated," said Helen Ghosh, Director General of the National Trust in a written statement, "after said many false starts and challenges, this does for the first time feel like a real opportunity to tackle the blight of the road that dominates the landscape of Stonehenge."
“This is about investing in the future. We have a responsibility to future generations to get this right as we provide a world class solution for a world class place," said Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, in a written statement.
However, several preservationists are arguing the tunnel is not long enough and could still damage the site. One of them is Neil Sinden, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England. He told ABC News the tunnel should be at least 2.4 miles long.
"A longer tunnel would mean the site would be safeguarded rather than being fragmented,” said Sinden. “We think the government should go further to honor the World Convention on Heritage Sites, by adding a 300 million investment to the 2 billion already pledged."
Stonehenge priests, called "druids", who congregate to greet the sun and perform fertility rites, have also come forward to express satisfaction with the project. In an open letter published in The Guardian, druid leader Rollo Maughfling said they “fully endorsed the idea of the tunnel, provided it did not run closer than 0.3 miles to the site of the monument, in order to obviate vibration damage risk in the substrata.”
The longer the tunnel is, the better it would be for preserving the site and the tranquility of its surrounding, said McMahon, who stressed that the government’s plan for 1.8 miles did not appear to be final.
Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world, according to the World Heritage, demonstrating “Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial and mortuary practices resulting from around 2000 years of continuous use,” and represents “a unique embodiment of our collective heritage.”
It is unclear how the stones, which weigh up to 45 tons, arrived on the site. Scholars believe they may have been a temple or a burial ground.
Overall, several preservationists such as those from The Stonehenge Alliance remain concerned.
“The Government's duty as signatory to the World Heritage Convention is to protect the whole World Heritage Site,” the group said in a statement. “This can only be achieved with a tunnel of around 3.5 miles.”
“The eastern perimeter has already been damaged by the existing dual carriageway,” according to the Stonehenge Alliance, who believes the extra miles of tunnel “ought to be the minimum our Government should undertake to respect its international commitment.”
“There is a risk that Stonehenge, together with Avebury, a nearby site, would lose its international designation,” said Kate Fielden, of the Stonehenge Alliance. “Should this happen, our Government would be vilified by present and future generations for its infamous disregard for the surroundings of a World famous icon.”
Transport minister Patrick McLoughin said Monday's announcement was “the biggest, boldest and most far reaching roads program for decades.” Addressing Parliament, he called the new tunnel “essential” and said it would “both extend dual-lane running on the congested A303 and massively improve the situation of the world’s most famous prehistoric monument.”
But opposition transport secretary Michael Dugher was not convinced. "We know David Cameron's record on infrastructure is one of all talk and no delivery. Hard-pressed motorists have been consistently let down by this Government,” said Dugher.
No date has been set yet for construction of the tunnel to begin. The plan, set to create 1,300 jobs, is part of a wider $23 billion project to upgrade Britain's road system.