LONDON — It is one of the most famous landmarks in Britain, an important archeological site, and a sacred place for neo-pagans, but even an ancient monument like Stonehenge can’t avoid the modern problem of traffic jams.
Visitors to the stone circles in Wiltshire, southern England, frequently have to contend with lengthy queues of cars. Now the UK government has given the green light to £2 billion ($2.4 billion) plans to build a 1.8-mile tunnel under the site and widen the nearby highway.
But despite backing from English Heritage, the scheme has enraged archeologists and academics who argue the tunnel and roadworks could destroy vital heritage.
Light pollution at one end of the tunnel will obscure the view of sunset on the winter solstice — one of the most important dates at Stonehenge — when thousands gather to celebrate the shortest day of the year.
And experts believe major archaeological treasures hidden beneath the surrounding landscape could be lost forever.
“Recent finds show this place is the birthplace of Britain, and its origins go back to the resettlement of this island after the Ice Age,” historian and author Tom Holland, who opposes the plan, told CNN.
“It staggers belief that we can inject enormous quantities of concrete to build a tunnel that will last at best 100 years and therefore decimate a landscape that has lasted for millenia,” he said.
In 2015 researchers found the remains of a major new prehistoric stone monument — dubbed “Super-henge” — less than 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from Stonehenge.
Andy Rhind-Tutt, chairman of Amesbury Museum and president of the local chamber of commerce, says the “destructive” tunnel will “put a time bomb of irreversible destruction on one of the world’s greatest untouched landscapes.”
He told CNN it would do little to cut travel chaos in the area: “The tunnel won’t give the solution to traffic that everyone has been told it will. We will still see the same tailbacks we currently get.”
The government, though, is determined to press ahead with the scheme.
“This major investment in the southwest will transform the A303 and benefit those locally by cutting congestion and improving journey times,” Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling said in a statement.
“It will also boost the economy, linking people with jobs and businesses with customers,” he added.
UNESCO, which recognized Stonehenge as a World Heritage Site in 1986, says it supports the idea of a tunnel in principle, but has not seen the final plans.
At the moment, the roar of traffic from the road that runs near the site can mar the experience of visiting the mysterious stones.
Experts say the tunnel would stop this happening, as traffic would be diverted underground.
“The traffic around Stonehenge is always busy and often really terrible, especially at weekends and during the holidays,” said local resident Mark Southgate, 56.
“A tunnel would certainly help, but there is concern about the chaos while it is being built, the massive projected cost, and potential damage to the stones and the wider landscape.”
The public has been given until March 5 to offer its opinions on the plans, and the preferred route will be announced later in 2017.
A spokesman for Highways England said construction work is expected to begin in 2020 and last four years.