Netanyahu Pushing Grand Master Plan for Transport

Following on the heels of the recently approved reforms to the Israel Lands Administration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now set his sights on his next economic target: transportation.

The Prime Minister's Office has begun promoting a comprehensive national transportation master plan that will affect all roads, train, airport and sea port infrastructure in Israel over the next decade at least.

This will be the first time that Israel has created a long term, comprehensive master plan that addresses all transportation infrastructure, at a cost estimated at tens of billions of shekels to carry out. The project is now the subject of discussion between the transportation and finance ministries.

The plan aims to provide a solution for all of Israel's transportation needs in the next ten years.

One major question that the plan will need to address is whether or not there is any need to build another international airport in light of the limited capacity at Ben-Gurion Airport, and in light of the need for an alternative to Ben Gurion to counteract potentially dire repercussions of a mishap or strike - and if so, where. Possible alternatives to Ben-Gurion Airport that are being considered are Nevatim, Ramat David and Timna.

Any decision on a new airport will necessarily involve a decision affecting the national railway system as well. The choice of building an airport at Timna, for instance, will necessitate a complimentary decision to build a passenger railway to Eilat. The Finance Ministry adamantly opposes extending the line to Eilat, arguing that the enormous expense involved in such a project has no economic justification. Netanyahu, however, is an enthusiastic proponent of a railway to the southern city, and is expected to overrule the treasury's position.

A decision to build an airport at Timna will add weight to the proponents of such a railway line to Eilat. Such a decision will also have repercussions on the future development of the Eilat sea port.

Another important issue relates to the need for an additional sea port - that is, when will such a port be needed, and where should it be located? Ashdod and Haifa are both under consideration. Any decision on this matter will also require inclusion of railway infrastructure. The issue also raises the sensitive issue of ownership of the new port, once constructed.

The decision to build a new sea port, which will then be handed over to the realm of private enterprise, is expected to raise the hackles of port workers, who worry about opening up any competition to existing docks.

The master plan is not expected to address the issue of ownership over the new port at this stage, but instead will focus on designating a location and timetable for construction.

The master plan will also address the question of whether or not to extend the Trans-Israel Highway (Highway 6), and if so, where. It will also look at the light rail system in Israel, both urban - with Be'er Sheva and Haifa as candidates for construction of a new system, and intercity lines - between Haifa and Carmiel for instance, which the finance ministry heartily supports as a light rail system but not a heavy rail line.

And of course, a formidable part of the plan will be dedicated to development of the national railway system. The prime minister supports construction of railway lines stretching from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat, connected through an eastern line (along the Highway 6 route) and feeding into east-west lines. The finance ministry is opposed to most railway lines reaching to distant peripheral areas, arguing that there is no economic justification for them, and that the huge investment will serve mostly empty trains. This portion of the plan is expected to face stiff opposition from the treasury.