A Car for Every Worker, a Train for Every Voter

Netanyahu's grandiose rail schemes may win him votes - but what about Israel's crumbling roads?

The enormous traffic jam on the coastal highway Sunday morning tells the entire story. One truck overturned and thousands of drivers stood waiting for six hours in a traffic jam that stretched back many kilometers. Tens of thousands of work hours were lost, and the drivers were furious. But during those hours Benjamin Netanyahu went on pushing his railway vision.

This is because the prime minister does not focus on trivialities. He has no time to deal with some minor road that can't grab the headlines or for which a press conference can't be organized. He is looking for big things: to link the entire country with a railroad network from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat, from Haifa to Bet She'an - however much it costs.

Netanyahu does not care about the little driver whose only desire is to make it to Haifa from Tel Aviv - that same driver who only has a reasonable road to drive on as far as Netanya. After that it's third world, because from Netanya to Haifa the road shrinks to two patched-up lanes, without lighting except that found around intersections.

If the highway had three lanes in each direction, like the international standard, the accident near the Yanai interchange would not have caused a traffic jam on a national scale. It would have been possible to keep one lane open, and with the wide shoulders, thousands of drivers would not have been stuck in traffic for hours.

But dealing with the coastal highway is not a "vision." On the other hand, the grandiose plan, estimated to cost NIS 50 billion, is dramatic enough to provide Netanyahu with the image of a reformer - which he is so fond of. It will also give him a monument, like the pharaohs, or like something Herod built.

But trains are an efficient means of transportation only when they link large population centers and remove congestion from the roads. Therefore, it would be right to invest in railroads between Haifa and Nahariya in the north and Be'er Sheva and Ashkelon in the south. And, of course, a line linking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There is a need to invest in suburban railroads in the crowded center of the country, and to finally build a subway for Tel Aviv and a light rail system for Jerusalem.

But building a railroad to Eilat, or one between Haifa and Bet She'an, would be a complete waste. There is also no point in a train from Acre to Carmiel, or for a track between Kiryat Shmona and Rosh Pina. On such connections there is insufficient population and no problem of traffic congestion. It will simply be a waste of public funds.

An example of a failed investment in railroads is the Be'er Sheva-Dimona connection. The planners said that 800,000 passengers would use the train between the two cities every year, but in practice four trains run the line each day, each with fewer than 20 passengers! Is there a bigger waste than this?

The problem of the outskirts of the country is not the lack of trains, but the quality of life. To strengthen the communities in the periphery, better-off populations are necessary, and this requires greater investment, first and foremost in education. People decide to move to a community based on the quality of education there, not how long the train tracks are. Also, it is necessary to create technologically advanced jobs in the periphery; for example, to move to the north the new factory Intel is planning, and to the south the IDF's new teleprocessing base. Thus, people with computer and engineering skills will live in the Negev and the Galilee, not only in Tel Aviv and Herzliya.

There is also a need to invest in culture, theater, cinema and malls so that young people will have something to do in their free time. It would also help if it would be possible to build houses at a reasonable cost - the dream of every young couple.

These are real plans that are capable of advancing the periphery. But they cost a great deal and require time. On the other hand, the train is quick gratification. A track is planned, billions are allotted, there is a ribbon to be cut at a ceremony. The problem is that trains will not help the periphery. They will even cause harm, because when the billions are put into railroads a la the 19th century, there will be no money left over for education, employment, housing or culture. Because there are no free lunches. After all, the budget is limited.

During the early 1970s, when Shimon Peres was transportation minister, he wanted to appeal to the general public. As such, he announced that soon "each worker will have a car." Netanyahu listened and learned. Now he is suggesting a "train for every voter." Because if populism is the game, why not go all the way?