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The opening yesterday of the latest section of the Trans-Israel Highway to traffic, from the Iron interchange to the Nitzanei Oz interchange, has almost completed the central section of the road from Gedera to Hadera. The road, and especially the toll charged those who drive on it, has drawn many complaints regarding inadequate directions and lighting, but mainly about the high fines imposed for late toll payments.

The final section brings the Trans-Israel Highway's length to 86 kilometers, from the Sorek interchange in the south to the Iron interchange in the north. The road was intended to offer an alternative to the Geha road and the Ayalon Highway, and driving from one end of it to the other takes 45 minutes.

The Trans-Israel Highway is Israel's first toll road and the first to be built with private entrepreneurs. Built by the Derech Eretz group at a private investment of some NIS 3.5 billion and a state investment of some NIS 800 million, the road is a model for other transport projects being planned.

The controversies that erupted between Derech Eretz and the state's Trans-Israel Highway company supervising the entrepreneurs' work, indicate the complexity of operating a toll road in Israel and the difficulties of having private entrepreneurs involved in such projects.

The Trans-Israel Highway company undertook in the contract to put the lands on which the road was to be built at Derech Eretz's disposal in May 2000. But the land transfer was delayed for a very long time, after the land owners rejected the compensation offered them. The owners of the lands expropriated claimed what they were offered was insufficient and should be calculated on the basis of the land's future zoning and use. The government argued the compensation was based on the land's current value, as required by law.

After the parties finally reached an agreement, Derech Eretz CEO Ehud Savion claimed the delays forced the company to intensify its work and spend NIS 400 million more to keep to schedules, and demanded the sum in compensation from the state.

Trans-Israel counters that the fact that the group completed the work ahead of schedule proves that the allotted time was sufficient.

When the first section of the Trans-Israel Highway opened in August 2002, it was lambasted for having inadequate directions at its entrances. Many drivers complained that in the absence of clear, sufficient directions, it was impossible to know where the road passes and how to enter it. Other drivers complained that they entered the road by mistake. When the toll was imposed, drivers' complaints about entering the road by mistake increased, with drivers' demanding an exemption from paying the toll. The Transport Ministry earmarked NIS 2 million to increase the signs at the road's entrances and along it.

Over the year drivers complained that the road had no lighting, except for at intersections, and is therefore very dark at night, with poor visibility. The Trans-Israel Highway people said that it is not customary to light fast roads throughout the world, but would look into the possibility of lighting the road.

The Trans-Israel Highway company says that the service Derech Eretz provides drivers is insufficient and not in keeping with the agreement's requirements. Cohen says the telephone service is inadequate and not enough registration stands were opened. Savion says the group recently shortened the waiting time for the telephone response. He admitted there had been delays at the registration stands but said it was unavoidable as the registration is a complicated process.

Cohen says that drivers who were fined for late payments complained that they did not receive their bills by mail, only notices for fines, and the company is looking into that. Savion says bills were sent to the addresses appearing in the licensing office, and the group cannot control the accuracy of the lists. He also said that in some places, especially Arab villages, there are no streets, and it is difficult to trace some addresses.

Many drivers claimed the group charged exorbitant fines for delayed payments. Thousands of drivers who drove on the road and failed to pay the toll on time were charged in addition to the toll, a NIS 54 collection fee for each trip. A driver who drove on the road twice and was first charged NIS 21 for the trips, was charged another NIS 108, even if only a few days had elapsed from the original payment schedule.

Following public pressure, Derech Eretz agreed to reduce the fine for a late first payment for a limited time. Meanwhile, the Transport Ministry is reexamining the enforcement rates.