Will Netanyahu's transportation reform roll forward?

Project entails large railway network, extending key highways.

The big question ahead of next Sunday's cabinet meeting is whether Prime Minister Netanyahu will push for a major transportation reform. The plan, which Netanyahu has been promoting aggressively since before coming into office, is said to be on the chopping block because of Finance Ministry concerns over its cost and necessity.
On Monday, The Marker published an article reporting on a private weekend meeting between Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, during which Netanyahu was convinced to scale back the plan, which is estimated to cost NIS 51-83 billion.
The Prime Minister's Office is denying the reform will be minimized. Netanyahu first presented the plan to the ministers at the beginning of February. The government is scheduled to vote on it Sunday, in a special cabinet session held in Tel Hai.
The plan, dubbed "Israel Routes," is an ambitious project entailing the construction of a large railway network throughout Israel's northern and southern periphery and extending Highway 6, the Trans-Israel Highway, to the north and the south. The plan was designed by Netanyahu's adviser and former Finance Ministry official Uri Yogev.
The transportation scheme, which entails seven major projects, aims to redistribute Israel's population more evenly across the country, assuming that better access would encourage people to leave the center and relocate to the periphery.
In the North, the plan calls for a railway network linking Kiryat Shmona and Karmiel to the existing line that ends in Acco, a railway connecting Afula and Beit She'an to Hadera and the renovation of the eastern rail line, connecting Kfar Saba to Hadera and extending north all the way to Karmiel, parallel to the coastal train.
As for roads, the plan calls for upgrading the major Galilee highways and extending Highway 6 to Shlomi, near the northern border.
In the south the plan aims to connect Eilat to the existing line that extends to Dimona, introduce a new track that circumvents Beersheba from the east to service the new military complex southeast of the city and extend Highway 6 from Kiryat Gat, past Beersheba to the Negev junction.
The plan's presentation states that currently 40 percent of Israel's population is concentrated in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. This area also accounts for 50% of jobs, leaving the Galilee and the Negev with 17% and 13% respectively. The vision would distribute the population more evenly, aiming to make the Galilee home to 21% of the population as opposed to 16.5% today and the Negev to grow from 14% to 20% by 2030. The plan assumes that by redistributing the population and the jobs, income gaps would diminish along with unemployment until the country evens out at NIS 12,000 in monthly income per worker and 5% unemployment across the country.
The plan's opponents, mostly Finance Ministry officials and junior staff at the Ministry of Transportation, say that many of the plan's elements have yet to have been planned or even studied carefully enough to determine their merit. Critics say many of the proposed routes will not be used sufficiently to justify their construction and that the notion that prosperity would follow the trains has not proven itself in places like Nahariya and Beersheba.
There is also the issue of cost. While Yogev and his team estimate the cost of the project to be NIS 51b. spread out over 15 years, the budget division of the Finance Ministry estimates it at NIS 83b. Budget division head Udi Nissan said the money could be put to better use in alternative investments in education, health and welfare.
Deputy Premier and Minister of Negev and Galilee Development Silvan Shalom responded to the rumors that Netanyahu had caved in by stating that he would personally make sure the plan would be approved as is in the next cabinet meeting.
"The reform is vital for strengthening the Negev and the Galilee. It will create new jobs and bring hundreds of thousands of new residents to the periphery. Not going through with the plans would be a tragedy for generations to come," said Shalom.
The prime minister's spokesman, Nir Hefetz, said that the claim isuntrue and that Netanyahu plans to present the plan for authorizationby the government in the near future.
"The national plan fornetworking the country's transportation grid is a central element in aseries of reforms that will be engines of growth and prosperity inIsrael promoted by the prime minister," said Hefetz.