Environmental groups are gearing up for the next stage of protest as the middle section of the Trans-Israel Highway nears completion.
The central section of the Trans-Israel Highway (TIH) is to be a 90-kilometer toll road. So far 65 km has been completed, while the remaining 25 km awaits the finalization of land expropriation agreements with local Arab communities. The entire TIH, stretching from the northern Negev to the Upper Galilee, will run about 300 km. And to facilitate the distribution of traffic to and from the highway, five new east-to-west `link up' highways are already in the planning or implementation stage.
Environmentalists have been fighting construction of the road since the plans were formulated. They have two main aims: to prevent the completion of the remaining stages of the TIH (the paving of the northern and southern sections) and to minimize the detrimental effects the highway will have on the environment.
In terms of the northern section, the environmental groups have a solid argument for stepping up their struggle - the damage the highway could inflict on the landscape of the Ramot Menashe area and the Galilee would be extensive. The issue here is not merely aesthetic tastes of nature lovers; the TIH would destroy unique landscape patterns that have escaped negative consequences of land development until now.
Environmentalists argue this area would also not economically benefit from the TIH. The Galilee, to a great extent, depends on the Haifa metropolitan area. So instead of extending the TIH northward, it would be sufficient to reinforce the Galilee's transportation links with central Israel through the enhancement of existing infrastructure.
However, concerning the highway's link-up with the Negev, Israel's environmental groups might be well advised to reconsider their position. Since the central section of the TIH is already a fait accompli, it would be advantageous, environmentally speaking, to have this section connected to the northern Negev.
Such a significant transportation infrastructure could be instrumental in developing the region and could even divert to the area some of central Israel's urban sprawl, which is having a decidedly negative impact on the open spaces of the country's more densely populated central region.
If the Greens were also to demand a substantial improvement in rail communications between the northern Negev and central Israel, they would achieve important social goals regarding the reinforcement of the country's peripheral communities.
Like other cross-country highways in Israel and abroad, the TIH threatens to become a powerful magnet for land development activities.
New highways always constitute an essential precondition for the development of suburbs and for the migration of industrial plants and service companies to the fringes of urban areas. The primary mission of the environmental groups today must be to do everything possible to prevent urban sprawl from ruining every area where sections of the TIH will be paved - especially the eastern Sharon region, the Ramot Menashe area and the city of Modi'in, all of which are highly attractive targets for real estate developers.
Research carried out in various countries shows new highways are a major catalyst in the process of suburbanization and urban sprawl. This, in turn, can lead to the rapid depletion of open spaces and the intensification of traffic congestion, especially considering that most travel to and from suburbs and work places located on the fringes of metropolitan areas is carried out by private vehicles.
Professor Adam Mazor of the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning in Haifa's Technion-Israel Institute of Technology told a conference on new communities held at Tel Aviv University last week that built-up areas in Israel have increased by 1,700 percent in the 52 years of the country's existence. The number is expected to double over the next two decades. Mazor warned that if the present developmental trends were to continue, the economic heart of the country, central Israel, would be seriously affected by traffic congestion. This would create environmental problems in the reduction of open spaces and also hamper Israel's economic growth.
Experts who originally supported the TIH project were aware of the danger of the highway becoming a "suburb-generator," however, some of them argued the danger would be limited and that the suburbanization process had begun long before the project was initiated. They also maintained that urban planning agencies, not the builders of the highway, are responsible for preventing the suburbanization processes from going out of control.
As recent experience demonstrates, however, it would be unwise to rely on urban planning agencies. To prevent the TIH from becoming a powerful mechanism that will produce a wasteful application of Israel's land resources, it will take a concerted effort on the part of environmental and social action groups in Israel, public figures, politicians and experts in town planning and nature conservation.
The first item on the agenda must be a determined resistance to any building that penetrates deep into open spaces where no construction exists, an area which would be completely dependent on private, rather than public, transportation. This is precisely the message that has been delivered by national outline plans that have been compiled in recent years.
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