Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz on Wednesday condemned Yair Lapid, the finance minister and Yesh Atid party leader, for his plans to suspend funding for new rail lines in the Jezreel Valley and to Carmiel in the north. Speaking during a press tour of the proposed routes, Katz called the halt to funding both "reckless and serious."
Katz said the treasury was proposing a cut of NIS 5.5 billion as part of overall budget reductions of NIS 18 billion, part of a broader effort to shrink the yawning budget deficit. "By cutting infrastructure [funding] to such an extent, the finance minister is acting like an army chief of staff who cuts combat units and the most essential defensive means," Katz, a Likud MK, said.
And the folks who will feel the brunt of it, Katz said, are those who live in Israel's far-flung areas.
"The Finance Ministry's plans to freeze the [Jezreel] Valley train project will lead to a loss of billions of shekels that have already been invested in the project," Katz said, adding that the funds "will now go to waste and will also do serious damage to public confidence, particularly of those people living in outlying areas of the State of Israel," Katz said. The Valley train project is at a point of no return, he claimed. Most of the public tenders on the project have already been issued and 13 contractors are already at work on the 60-kilometer line, he said.
"Freezing the project for a number of years will lead to the destruction of infrastructure that has already been built and create annual expenditures for a white elephant in the form of bridges hanging in the air and track that leads nowhere."
Transportation Ministry sources said most of the project's NIS 3 billion is being invested in basic foundation work that is already in progress and the funding that the Finance Ministry is seeking to halt is marginal in comparison. One source said that the freeze will do nothing to stem the government's budget deficit but will cause major harm to residents of outlying areas of the country.
Katz said construction of the Jezreel Valley line will enable train cargo to move to and from Haifa port and the center of the country and reduce freight train traffic along the coast and truck traffic on the highways. It would also reduce traffic congestion and the number of trucks involved in traffic accidents, he claimed. And getting northern towns such as Migdal Haemek, Afula and Beit She'an connected to the national rail network would significantly cut travel time to the center of the country and create a new pattern of employment and population along the rail routes.
"It involves a real revolution by creating new opportunities for young couples to build a life, a home, and to find work in outlying communities," Katz said.
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