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Environmental groups scored a victory this week when an Interior Ministry Committee decided to upgrade and widen a stretch of Route 2, the Coastal Highway, rather than building a new parallel road to the east.

The highway, which runs from Tel Aviv to Haifa, is among the most heavily traveled roads in the country, and the 27-kilometer stretch that runs between Zichron Yaakov and the Havatselet Hasharon exit is a scene of constant traffic jams.

Both the Emek Hefer Regional Council and individual communities near the road had supported a new highway as a better alternative for relieving the congestion.

But environmental groups opposed a new highway, saying it would cause harm to the area's open spaces, including Hasharon Park near Hadera. And on Monday, the ministry's National Infrastructure Committee sided with them.

The planned upgrade, however, is part of an overall five-year plan developed by the Transportation Ministry and the state-owned Israel National Road's Company.

Thus the improvements to this section of the coastal road - whose cost will apparently exceed NIS 1 billion - will require approval of the plans for the entire width and breadth of the country.

Superhighway standards

The proposal approved on Monday calls for an additional lane of traffic in each direction, upgraded entrance and exit ramps and the elimination of curves in the road, to bring it into compliance with the standards for superhighways.

That will enable the speed limit to be raised above the current 90 kilometers per hour. Sound barriers will also be installed to reduce highway noise in nearby communities.

The Interior Ministry committee that rejected the option of a new road concluded that upgrading the current highway was preferable for both environmental and transportation reasons.

But Emek Hefer Regional Council head Rani Idan charged that the plan approved this week will not properly address the traffic problem.

He also dismissed the environmental argument, saying the parallel road would mostly have run through industrial and agricultural areas.

Representatives of communities that are situated near the highway had also contended that widening the existing road would increase air pollution and noise in the area.

Arik Tapiro, transportation coordinator for the Society for the Protection of Nature of Israel, welcomed the committee's decision, but said even the plan adopted will create environmental problems, and efforts should be made to minimize any potential issues in cooperation with the local communities.