For years, traffic on the congested two-lane A303 highway has passed within 500 feet of Stonehenge, marring the landmark and some of England's loveliest countryside with car exhaust and noise. Add to that an ugly concrete tourism center from the sixties—it's no wonder a minister of parliament has called the site a "national disgrace."
The government proposes to fix these eyesores by grassing over the highway and building a 1.3 mile-long tunnel in its stead. Once the tunnel is completed, public and private donors will chip in to build a new tourism center with a minimalist design.
But the $476 million project has infuriated nearly a dozen activist groups, which claim the tunnel will disrupt the warren of ancient pathways and burial sites surrounding Stonehenge. "A tunnel will massively damage the area around the stone circle," says Chris Woodford, a spokesperson for Save Stonehenge. Some activists would like to double the length of the underground highway, pulling it farther away from the iconic stones (adding roughly $330 million to the bill); environmentalists would like to eliminate the tunnel altogether to save an underground aquifer.
An independent commission is holding hearings to seek alternate solutions, but the secretaries of state have ultimate authority to yea or nay the proposal. "These hearings are a rubber-stamping enterprise," says Woodford. "Projects don't get killed at this stage." The commission is expected to make a recommendation by year's end, and the Highways Agency anticipates breaking ground in 2005.