Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday presented to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and senior treasury officials his grandiose plan for investments to link the periphery to the center of the country via a network of highways and railway lines over the next 20 years. The lion's share of the costs, some NIS 50 billion, will go to the rail network, from Eilat to Kiryat Shmona, and from Haifa to Beit She'an.
This is not a serious plan, and it lacks a professional analysis of transportation needs, solid figures, operational timetables or a cost-benefit analysis.
Senior transportation experts have determined that the train is an efficient means of transport only when it solves the problem of traffic congestion as an alternative to overburdened roads; for example the rail line between Tel Aviv and Haifa, between Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva and the commuter rail network in the packed center of the country.
But the train is highly inefficient as a solution for transportation in the periphery. There are no traffic jams there - and not enough passengers. Train stations are far from each other and it is impossible to build them in the city centers, meaning that the total travel time for train passengers can be very long.
This is the case with the Dimona-Be'er Sheva line today, which has only 80 riders a day. This is because when there is a good road connecting two cities, the public prefers to take the flexible and faster bus, or their own cars - and not the train. There is also no traffic problem on the road to Eilat, and no one will commute to work every morning from Eilat to Tel Aviv. That is why there is no need for an expensive train route instead of two or three Egged buses for the drive down south.
It is appropriate to develop public transportation, but trains are appropriate only for the congested center of the country. To bring the periphery closer to the center we should invest in roads, including Route 6, the Trans-Israel Highway.
But Netanyahu is interested in public relations achievements. He understands the public's desires and knows that image is more important than essence - and investing in railroads gives a politician the image of "doing things" and vision. The train is a powerful symbol, and is much more alluring than a boring public bus line.
But we also need to do the right thing, and invest in roads and an efficient network of "green" buses running on natural gas that reaches every nook and cranny of the country efficiently and flexibly. That is the quick and proper solution for the periphery.
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