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The Finance Ministry's economic stimulus package was first and foremost supposed to spur the completion of a host of large-scale infrastructure projects, thereby providing employment and driving up demand at a time of deepening recession.
And yet the Transportation Ministry recently listed an assortment of high-profile projects, with an aggregate value of NIS 20 billion, that are either unlikely to get off the drawing boards, or have been given deadlines further and further into the future. A notable case is the high-speed railway which is supposed to connect Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport to the capital - running largely parallel to Highway 1, the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem traffic artery. Completion of this serially postponed project, whose cost keeps escalating, is now altogether compromised.
The need to provide speedy, reliable and environmentally-friendly public transport between Jerusalem and the Coastal Plain's metropolitan hub has long been appreciated. Back in 1881, Jerusalemite Yosef Navon labored to secure a railroad franchise from the Ottomans which he eventually transferred to a French firm. The resulting construction was completed in 1892.
That historic train route, along Nahal Sorek, was discontinued due to safety concerns in 1998. Between 2002 and 2005 the old line was upgraded and reopened after a seven-year hiatus. Nevertheless, hairpin turns have taken a toll on equipment; a one-way ride lasts more than 90 minutes, making commuting by train slower than traveling by private vehicle or bus.
THE ROUTE currently under construction was officially chosen in 2001. It was the most expensive and complex of the proposals evaluated. Other ideas were rejected because the tracks would have crossed the Green Line. The adopted A1 plan calls for only minor incursions, alongside Highway 1. But of 57 rail kilometers, 44 would pass through tunnels and seven on bridges, culminating in a subterranean terminal beneath Binyanei Ha'uma - Jerusalem's convention center opposite the Central Bus Station.
Thus far, only the sections between Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport, and from there to Kfar Daniel (some four kilometers beyond) have been completed. This leaves the final, most expensive and arduous 30-kilometer leg to Jerusalem - 20 kilometers of which would run underground and six over bridges. Originally slated for completion in 2010, the project has been put off until 2013, then 2014, 2015, and now the target date has been reset for 2017.
The original budget of NIS 2 billion mushroomed to NIS 6b., but is expected to exceed NIS 9b. Spiraling costs led the Treasury to reevaluate the entire project during 2007-08; construction was halted for many long months. But the recession tipped the scales in favor of pressing ahead, despite Treasury recriminations and slow progress.
Claims that the project would cause irreparable damage to the environment - specifically to the Nahal Yitla Nature Reserve - have also hampered progress. Zeev Hacohen, of the Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, asserts: "Jerusalem managed to survive for 3,000 years without railway links. It can wait another two..."
We don't think so. Not if Jerusalem is to be a thriving metropolis rather than a struggling backwater. A rail link that would shrink travel time between the capital and the country's commercial center to 28 minutes would do wonders for our capital.
A short, comfortable, pollution-free ride, unhindered by traffic congestion and road accidents, would open new employment and commercial vistas for Jerusalemites. It might decrease the younger generation's temptation to leave the city in search of work and recreation. It could lure new residents to greater Jerusalem's vicinity without fear of cutting themselves off from their current workplaces. Perhaps more than any other project, a rail connection would secure Jerusalem's future growth and prosperity.
WE CALL upon decision makers to free up the funds necessary to make the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem fast train a reality. Environmental concerns obviously need to be taken into account - but within the larger social, economic and political context.
America's transcontinental railroad was constructed during less than four years (1865-69) with none of today's technology, over immense distances and far more forbidding terrain.
Surely Israel has the capability to complete the project from Kfar Daniel to Jerusalem and to do so well before 2017 or beyond!