Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit is determined to bring about his own kind of "social revolution" in Israel - one based on the development of railways and roads that would improve the public's access to all areas of the country.
"We are a tiny country, and despite this we have a 'periphery' [underprivileged areas]. It's ridiculous," he told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.
The "vision" guiding Sheetrit's planned transportation infrastructure development is "to bring every Israeli citizen, no matter where he lives in the country, to a large metropolitan center within one half hour from his place of residence."
If this happens, he says it will be a "social revolution," noting that the Hebrew word "transportation" (tahbura) includes the words "society" (hevra) and "connection" (hibbur).
"If a citizen will be able to reach a big city within one half hour, he can find work there more easily, [find] professional training more easily, and a wider range of professional training," Sheetrit explained.
Furthermore, bringing residents of Mitzpeh Ramon or Yeruham within reach of Beersheba, for instance, would also spare the money and effort wasted on trying to establish and maintain industry in isolated desert towns, the minister argued.
"Many [factories] go bankrupt, and nothing comes of them." If, instead of this, he said, money is invested in making express roads (express trains primarily) then a person can get from Mitzpeh Ramon to Beersheba within one half hour, work there, and a giant industrial zone could be developed in Beersheba.
"The 'periphery' will turn into suburbs. One will be able to live at a very high standard of living outside, work in the big city, and not use the private car."
Sheetrit is confident his plans will work, just as they did in Yavneh 30 years ago when he was head of the local council and established a giant villa neighborhood, established a very high level of education and made an interchange on the highway to Tel Aviv.
"This worked amazingly. It completely transformed Yavneh. I think this transformation will happen in Yeruham, Dimona ... the whole country."
Working on the railroads
Sheetrit led the partial privatization of Israel Railways and its establishment as a government company, securing a budget of NIS 20b. to cover the first of several planned five-year development periods.
"The idea is to spread out the rail lines to reach every medium city in the country," he said.
In the 18 months since he became transportation minister, much has been done to realize this goal, according to Sheetrit who enumerated a long list of train stations and lines that have been or are soon to be inaugurated.
Having opened the rail lines to Ben Gurion Airport and between Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, the ministry currently is overseeing work to double the track to Beersheba. The line's new terminus, serving Ben Gurion University, was opened last Wednesday. At the end of December, a new station will link Dimona to the railway system.
An express line is currently being built, connecting Rishon Lezion, Ashdod, Yavneh, Ashkelon, Ofakim, Netivot, and Sderot between Tel Aviv and Beersheba.
Once this line is laid, Sheetrit said travel time will be 40 minutes between Ashkelon and Tel Aviv and 15 minutes between Yavneh and Tel Aviv. Today, traveling the Southern Line from Yavneh to Tel Aviv on the Southern Line is more than one half hour because it is necessary to travel via Lod and Rehovot.
The 28-minute express line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will be opened for business at the end of 2008 or beginning of 2009, he noted, complete with a terminus 60 meters below the Jerusalem International Convention Center.
"It's in construction, they're working. We're digging the tunnels. This project is on its way," Sheetrit said.
He also has prepared plans for a railway to Eilat, which have been submitted to the National Infrastructures Committee. Such a rail line, he said, would "change life in Eilat [and] transform the Negev" and he rejects the argument that the NIS 4b. project is not economically sound. "This is a national project, which I can now carry out at the lowest cost. The land is empty and belongs to the state. It would not involve confiscating [land] from anyone."
Linking with Jordan, PA
Sheetrit seems particularly proud of plans to resurrect and upgrade the historic Jezreel Valley Railway (Rakevet ha-Emek), connecting the port city of Haifa with the Jordanian border crossing at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge through Afula.
A single passenger line costing some NIS 1b. will be inaugurated in around three years. Preparation for work on the first segment between Haifa and Afula already has begun.
Sheetrit intends to present plans for a second line - built to carry cargo between the Port of Haifa and the Jordanian border - at a conference of European and Mediterranean transportation ministers to be held in Marrakech, Morocco on December 15, where he will request â‚¬200m. in European Union funding to build it as the EU has set a goal of helping to create ways of linking Euromed states.
Following the Qualifying Industrial Zone agreement signed in 1997 between Jordan, the US and Israel - canceling US import duties on Jordanian industrial products and integrating an Israeli component of at least 8% of the product's value - Jordanian exports to the US grew "incredibly" to more than $1b and created 40,000 Jordanian jobs, Sheetrit noted.
"All this merchandise passes from the Sheikh Hussein Bridge. They bring it in trucks to the bridge, at the bridge the trucks are unloaded, the merchandise is transferred to other trucks, and it goes with them to the Port of Haifa." Ideally, he said, the Jordanians would build a rail link on their side of the border, linking the Sheikh Hussein Bridge with the industrial town of Irbid, and from there to Iraq.
"I don't have the money to pay for a line that will actually serve the Jordanians," he said, but stressed that transferring cargo traffic to a rail line would also take "hundreds of thousands" of trucks off the roads of northern Israel per year, improving road safety.
Furthermore, a less expensive extension could link the Jezreel Valley Railway with Jenin in the Palestinian Authority, allowing factories in the northern West Bank, as well, to export merchandise through the Port of Haifa, he said.
Nonetheless, if the Jordanians are uninterested in expressing their support for the Jezreel Valley cargo line at the meeting in Marrakech, or if the EU decides not to fund it, Sheetrit said it won't be built.
Sheetrit is dedicating just as much effort - and funding - to the development of the country's highways and toll roads.
"We're backwards in terms of transportation infrastructure," he said, arguing that, in Israel, the density of cars on the road is three times the accepted norm in the developed world.
"In Israel, nothing was invested in infrastructure for decades. I'm trying to catch up with this now."
Additionally, Sheetrit led the recent transformation of the Public Works Authority into the Israel National Roads Company, which was provided with a budget of NIS 19b. for a five-year wave of highway construction.
Sheetrit related that when he came into office he pushed through an agreement to advance construction of toll road Highway 6's Segment 18 between Hadera and Yokneam - a project still drawing fire both from environmentalists opposed to its path cutting through the green hills between Nahal Iron (Wadi Ara) - the historic warpath to Megiddo-Armageddon - and Nahal Tut (Wadi Milik), as well as from religious Jews concerned about the fate of ancient burials that were uncovered.
He cut the grant intended for Derech Eretz, the company leading the project, and gave the NIS 80m. saved to the Trans-Israel Highway Company, to be used towards construction of Segments 19 and 20, bringing the toll road to the environs of Beersheba.
"Within two years, by the end of 2007, it will be possible to drive from Beersheba straight to Yokneam on the express toll road," Sheetrit pledged. "I also allocated to Trans-Israel Highway to complete Highway 6 until Dimona in the south and until Nahariya in the north [and] to connect the whole Negev to the Galilee."
Other projects in the works include the Carmel Tunnels Road (directly linking the Carmel Coast with Kishon (Checkpost) Junction; Route 431 (allowing direct access from Nes Ziona and Yavneh to Highway 6); and Route 531 (connecting Herzliya, Kfar Saba and Ra'anana with Highway 6).
Sheetrit is also lobbying for a toll road to allow quick access to Highway 6 from the center of Tel Aviv - the Ayalon East [Netiv Ayalon Mizrach]. Express lanes are also planned for the entry ways into both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
All in all, Sheetrit plans to invest NIS 60b in transportation in the country over the next five years.
"That's nothing less than a revolution," he said.
Sheetrit rejected the notion that such a boom of highway development - together with tax cuts on the purchase of new cars - could undermine his railway initiative. Nor did he see the urban sprawl that generally results from highway development as contradictory to the goal of bringing people out of their cars and into the trains and buses.
"We need to [build more roads] in any event. The number of vehicles will keep on increasing. Nothing will stop it."
Developing Israel's highways and express roads is actually integral to supporting public transportation use in the country, in Sheetrit's vision.
Buses using express lanes would outpace private vehicles coming into Tel Aviv from Jerusalem by 20 minutes, while those using the express train line would halve the time needed to make the journey. Both bus and train passengers will save even more money if his proposal to raise taxes on gas is accepted.
"It will be 20 times as expensive to travel to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem by car than with the bus," he predicted. "It won't pay to drive."
Sheetrit also spoke out against company cars and the practice of car ownership bonuses. "A car has become some kind of luxury so hi-tech companies, for example, give employees cars as a benefit ... so they are encouraging people to travel by car."
Sheetrit brushed aside questions of possible environmental damage resulting from plans to put toll highways through the Jerusalem Hills, including one - Route 39 - running from Kiryat Gat to Jerusalem through the Nahal Sorek area.
"It doesn't run the length of Nahal Sorek, it begins in a place called Nahal Sorek. So you make a bridge, what's the problem? What's Nahal Sorek? All it is is a wadi [seasonal creek bed]. It's not a river with flowing water. ... There's nothing there."
Such a road, he noted, would cut at least half an hour off the trip from Beersheba to Jerusalem. The other toll road would provide a quick entry around the city from Motza to Sderot Begin (Route 4).
"I cannot make peace with the fact that there were 510 killed in 2004 and 3,500 injured in traffic accidents. How can I live with this? It's intolerable," Sheetrit proclaimed, declaring that war on traffic accidents would be the second key component of his vision as transportation minister.
His stated goal is to reduce the number of those killed and injured in traffic accidents in Israel by at least 30% within five years and by at least 50% within 10 years despite the expected rise in the number of vehicles on the roads.
Increasing enforcement of traffic laws on the country's roads is a key tool for achieving this goal. Sheetrit wants to triple the number of police cars patrolling the roads during each shift, to 450 patrol cars from the current 150, saturating the highways at 10-km intervals.
"When you see a police officer behind you, you take your foot off the gas and are more careful."
To this end, he provided 80 patrol cars for the traffic police in 2005 from the Transportation Ministry budget and has requested reinforcements - 1,500 soldiers - to help do the job of the underfunded traffic police. "They will do truly life-saving work. The way I see it, this is more important than [national] security."
Several accident-prevention "operations" have already proven the effect reinforced enforcement can have, he added. A two-week operation in the North - the only district to see a rise in accidents in 2005 so far - cut fatalities by 70% in comparison with the previous two weeks. A country wide holiday-period operation - running from Rosh Hashana to after Sukkot - brought down traffic accident deaths by 32% in comparison with last year's holidays and by 50% in comparison with the holiday season two years ago.
So far this year, the number of traffic accident deaths fell 10% in comparison with last year to a 10-year low, he said.
Additionally, Sheetrit led efforts to pass a law requiring the police to temporarily confiscate vehicles in which people are driving without a license, on drugs, intoxicated, with too many passengers, or with too much weight. Whether its the driver's car or not, the vehicle involved would be taken without trial for 30 days the first time, and 60 days on a second violation within three years. In California, a similar law brought down accidents "very drastically," he said.
A second law seeks to tackle uncooperative drunk drivers - any driver refusing to be tested for driving while intoxicated will be automatically considered drunk. Now, if a driver is stopped by police and refuses to be tested, there is nothing the police can do."
Meanwhile, the discovery that nearly one-fifth of traffic accident deaths were caused by drivers ignoring red lights led to a project to install digital surveillance cameras at every stoplighted intersection in the country, he said.
Other "improvements" would be made on roads found to be particularly accident-prone, and full interchanges would replace stoplights at all intersections of interurban roads, he said.
As part of these efforts, the National Road Safety Authority was transformed from a unit within the ministry to an independent authority and its budget was boosted from NIS 160m. to NIS 550m. yearly. Of the new amount, NIS 200m. would be invested in improving traffic safety within urban settings, since one in three deaths on the road are actually pedestrians hit by cars in town, he said.
Despite his push to reduce traffic deaths, Sheetrit is unconcerned about high driving speeds and is considering raising speed limits in some places.
"The public wants the speed limit to be raised," he said, citing a survey in which 903 respondents were in favor, overwhelming the mere 154 against. "If you have an accident at high speed it leads to death but, as a cause of accidents, speed is [only] a secondary factor."
In the wake of the Livneh Commission's recommendation to raise the speed limit, Sheetrit said he intends to hold discussions after receiving all pertinent data.
"I still haven't decided whether to raise the speed limit," he said. "In any event, it would only be on [properly] arranged roads, with a safety level high enough to permit it."