Road projects progress in face of budget cuts

Funding for other key projects remained in doubt following notice by the Finance Ministry that both Israel Railways and the INRC were instructed to halt work.

galilee roads 88 298 (photo credit: Israel National Roads Company)
galilee roads 88 298
(photo credit: Israel National Roads Company)
Even as Israel Railways and the Israel National Roads Company continue to absorb news of Treasury cuts to the budgets of key projects to help fund the war, the roads company announced progress on highway projects in the North and Center of the country. Israel National Roads Company (INRC) said Tuesday it had informed Kal Binyan Ltd. of its success in a tender to upgrade part of Highway 443 near the Ben Shemen interchange at a cost of NIS 42 million. The work - to be completed by May 2008 - includes widening the road along a 1.3-kilometer stretch to create a second, two-lane stretch of road parallel to the existing one, separating the traffic going in opposite directions from each other as is the case on the rest of the highway. Additionally, sound barriers, lighting, railing and traffic lights will be put in place to increase safety at the entries to both Ben Shemen and Ginaton. Also this week, the INRC said workers broke ground on 310-meter long two-way Galilee Tunnels, near Iksal, as part of work on Route 60. The project will replace the last five meters of the road from Afula and the Jezreel Valley up into Nazareth by early 2009, replacing a winding road with a wider, straighter stretch of pavement, at a total cost of NIS 350m. The new segment will include an interchange near Iksal and a 50-meter high bridge next to cliffs of Qafzeh and the Mount of Precipice, at the southern ascent into Nazareth. Funding for other key projects, however, remained in doubt following notice by the Finance Ministry late last week that both Israel Railways and the INRC were instructed to halt work on the projects and await further word about their funding. The INRC confirmed that the Finance Ministry ordered the company to cut NIS 580m. from its project budget, in order to free up funds to cover war costs. The company said it would appeal the decision and the calculation method applied. "It is troubling to discover, yet again, the automatic tendency to make deep cuts in 'traditional' areas and push infrastructure to the bottom of the list of priorities," said INRC CEO Alex Vizhnitzer. Projects likely to be canceled as a result of the decision included the highway bypassing the Krayot in the Haifa Bay area; a project to develop roads 65 and 85 between Golani and Ammi'ad junctions; Highway 2 between Neurim and Caesarea; and Route 31 between Shoket Junction and Arad. "This decision means canceling projects with economic, safety and transportation yields for the economy just when the government is seeking to accelerate the economy's growth," Vizhnitzer said, adding that the cut was also "unreasonable" in light of the "tens of millions of shekels" in damage done to roads in North during the fighting. Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson subsequently designated the work on roads 65 and 85 - in the eastern Galilee - as being "a project of national importance," in order to help rush work on the project, the cost of which was estimated at NIS 1 billion. Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry instructed Israel Railways to freeze planning, land assembly and other work on the Jezreel Valley line and lines from Kiryat Motzkin to Nahariya and from Ashkelon to Beersheba, in addition to the Acre-Karmiel line, which the government had already put on hold. The ministry cited uncertainty surrounding the spending and priorities in the 2007 budget caused by the war as one of the reasons for the decision but stressed, primarily, findings that Israel Railways' development program had already exceeded cost estimates by NIS 4.6b. The Treasury, therefore, ordered Israel Railways to make due with the NIS 20b. already transferred to its coffers "until the picture is cleared up." "The projects will be unfrozen once sources for funding progress on them are found," the ministry told The Jerusalem Post. Initial planning work, nonetheless, was required to continue on a fourth track in the Ayalon corridor and the line to Eilat, as well as projects to separate railways from roads and other "urgent safety investments," according to the Finance Ministry's letter. In response, Israel Railways protested the decision as "one-sided" and in contravention of agreements it has with the government, refuting the ministry's claim that the company had failed to sign an agreement by June 1, of which it said it only received a draft copy on August 8. Israel Railways also stressed that the Kiryat Motzkin-Nahariya and Ashkelon-Beersheba lines were already "under intensive work," rejecting the wording of the ministry's cancellation as if they "had yet to begin."