In July 2001, the government made an important decision: to pave an east-west highway that would connect the Trans-Israel Highway with the coastal road. It was clear to everyone that without a proper link between the new north-south artery and the large population centers along the coast, it would be impossible to solve the problems of congestion, traffic jams, air pollution, lost productivity and impaired quality of life for residents of the center of the country.
The government gave the task to Maatz (the Israel Public Works Department) and decided that it should be completed by mid-2004, when the central section of the Trans-Israel Highway was to be opened to traffic.
The private franchisee building the Trans-Israel Highway, Derech Eretz, finished on schedule. The company worked day and night and was not deterred by the attacks of the intifada, since time is money. But the government and Maatz - and later Maatz's successor, the National Road Company - had all the time in the world. They did not have to worry about profit and loss. They were in no rush to go anywhere.
The result is that the east-west highway is still not finished, as three key roads in the crowded center of the country have yet to be built: Route 9 (which links the Trans-Israel Highway with the coastal road in the area of Mikhmoret), Route 551 (which links the Trans-Israel Highway with the coastal road in the area of Ga'ash-Shefayim) and Route 531 (which links the Trans-Israel Highway with the coastal road in the area of Kfar Shmaryahu).
A heated battle is now being waged over the two highways in the Sharon area (551 and 531). These highways are supposed to handle the large amount of traffic in the Sharon, an area that is totally jammed every morning and evening. Since there are no east-west highways in the area, the Sharon's tens of thousands of residents are forced to crawl along in endless traffic jams on the north-south roads and make their way along the narrow streets of Ra'anana, Kfar Sava, Herzliya, Even Yehuda or Bnei Zion if they want to cross the Sharon horizontally. The result is a loss of precious work hours, a loss of productivity, air pollution caused by traffic jams and traffic accidents caused by frayed nerves.
But all this does not bother the environmentalists. They are opposed to these two east-west highways, just as they oppose every other highway. It seems that if they could, they would roll stones and close Highway 1 (the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway), because it also harms the landscape, at Sha'ar Hagay and in the Jerusalem hills.
They are not interested in the tens of thousands of vehicles that are stuck every day in traffic jams, emitting poisonous fumes, or that must try to cross fields, cities and moshavim on rocky paths and winding roads in the Sharon. Because the Greens like the swamp dragonfly better. They are opposed to an orderly and well-kept highway that improves quality of life, because a highway is development, and development is bad.
Their latest warped idea is to build a substantial section of Route 531 underground. They claim that the tunnel alternative is cheaper - the essence of absurdity. They are not impressed by a study carried out by the National Road Company that demonstrated that the tunnel would be twice as expensive as the road (NIS 4 billion as compared to NIS 2 billion). They do not care that digging a tunnel would make the project unfeasible and also cause other important transportation projects to be postponed, since after all, even the National Road Company has budgetary limitations. A train is also planned along the highway. Will we put it underground as well?
A tunnel has huge maintenance costs - for monitoring systems, emergency crews, massive lighting and ventilation by means of huge motors. A tunnel causes safety problems: Its dangers include fires, terrorist activity and accidents. Who would want to travel through a long tunnel, considering the usual level of driving in Israel? One can only imagine the horror of a car accident in such a tunnel.
Route 531 is being planned as an advanced highway, partially sunken, on which driving will be pleasant. It will have well-maintained shoulders, as on the Trans-Israel Highway. The road will save time, bring us closer to nature, enable hikes and enjoyment of the landscape. Just the opposite of what the Greens are claiming.
Last week, the High Court of Justice decided that the issue should be examined by the National Infrastructure Committee. Thus the delays continue - though even now, there are four contenders ready to begin paving the road immediately. But the state and the High Court have time. The only ones who do not are the tens of thousand of drivers who continue to be stuck in the long traffic jams, breathing the cars' exhaust and waiting impatiently for the improved quality of life that will come with Route 531.
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