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Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh has drawn up a plan to complete and upgrade the national railroad network by 2006. The $2 billion project will not draw on the budget - seven-year loans will be taken from local and foreign banks, and some of the jobs will be done in the PFI (private finance initiative) format.

In PFI projects, a private contractor constructs, finances and operates the project, and collects a fee from the state during the franchise period (15-25 years). After that, the developer hands over the project to the client state. Sneh said the tracks from the western part of Rishon Letzion to Tel Aviv and those between Modi'in and Jerusalem will be built this way.

At a press conference in Tel Aviv yesterday, Sneh said the plan (which he called the New Deal) was presented this week to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and won his support. Sneh said the Ports and Railroads Authority will secure NIS 400 million in bank loans in 2002-2003. Sneh said he would speed up the statutory processes by declaring these projects to be a national priority and putting them before the recently-endorsed committee for expedited approval of national projects.

Not only will the plan help in creating a convenient, cheap and accessible mass-transport system to connect all parts of the country, it will also generate many jobs, helping the economy out of its serious recession, Sneh said. The plan includes a NIS 215 million investment to upgrade the line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, NIS 79 million for the line to Dimona, NIS 700 million for building another pair of tracks to Be'er Sheva, and NIS 400 million for building a service connecting Ashkelon, Netivot, Ofakim and Be'er Sheva.

The plan also addresses projects that have already been approved but have been put on hold because of budget problems. These include a NIS 54 million allocation for restoring the line between Lod and Rosh Ha'ayin; NIS 575 million for building another pair of tracks between Tel Aviv and Kfar Saba; NIS 183 million for upgrading the existing tracks between Ashdod and Ashkelon and for building another pair of tracks along that line; and NIS 730 million for a line to connect Modi'in and Ben Gurion Airport.