September 01, 2002

Neither Reason Nor Snipers Can Stop It: The Trans-Israel Highway Lurches Forward

When local snipers targeted construction workers, the government decided to build a bulletproof wall to protect cars from bullets. (Last November, the government had to use considerable force to move some 400 Palestinian demonstrators who protested against their land been taken for road construction.) Further eroding potential ridership are delays in the lateral connecting roads that were planned to feed traffic onto the highway.

The Israeli government is scrambling for alternatives. One is to replace tolling with “shadow pricing”, in which the government pays the company directly for every traveler. With no tolls, more people will use the road reducing government compensation to the contractors. The government also plans to spend additional $600 million this year on new roads that will connect the Trans-Israel highway to existing roads thereby boosting the traffic on the road.

While the government is looking for ways to cut down its losses, contractors are finding it hard to raise funds for planned extensions of the road. After already spending some $500 million and with $450 million additional costs expected, contractors are seeking another $250 million to build yet another 20 km northward extension of the road, (“section 18”).

Environmentalists are concerned that section 18 will fragment the last large open natural area in the center of the country, land that may be of significant importance for the rapidly growing population in years to come. Since the proposed route goes over many streams and valleys requiring a large number of bridges to be built, construction costs for section 18 are expected to be quite high.

Local residents and representatives backed up by a land use expert say that building this road section in an underground tunnel will reduce the road’s negative impacts on the environment and not significantly exceed the costs of above ground construction. Transportation Minister, Mr. Efraim Sne, however has rejected all such proposals.

As one of the worlds smallest and densely populated countries, many fear that taken together, this massive new highway, planned to stretch to a total of 300 km from north to south, will cement Israel’s future transportation system as a car based one, increasing the loss of open spaces and induce urban sprawl. The fact that two of the main private contractors building the road are traditionally involved in housing projects may serve as an indicator of future development plans alongside the road.

The same companies are also involved in similar highway projects and retail centers construction in Central Europe.

While the government claims the road will improve access to jobs in the center of the country for those living in the periphery, relieve congestion in the already jammed Tel Aviv metropolis and improve the overall national economy, transportation experts say the road will most likely worsen existing congestion and at the same time introduce a whole new range of social and environmental problems.

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