Finance Ministry Wants to Derail Prime Minister's Transport Development Plan

The Finance Ministry is highly critical of a plan for developing transportation in Israel being pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a document prepared by the ministry's budget department.

The authors charge that the plan does not offer any solution to the serious transportation problems in central Israel.

Moreover, the document says that there has been insufficient analysis of various rail and road proposals as far as their economic and practical implications are concerned. The transportation program that Netanyahu is promoting is called Israel Routes. It calls for the establishment of rail and road networks that are meant to connect outlying communities to the center of the country and to create a railroad link to cities like Eilat and Kiryat Shmona.

In terms of roads, the plan is mostly based on creating extensions of the Trans-Israel highway to the upper and eastern Galilee.

According to officials at the Prime Minister's Office the proposed transportation program will increase the population in the periphery and will improve employment conditions in the Galilee and the Negev.

The Finance Ministry appraisal was completed several weeks ago and estimates that the overall cost of the various transportation projects may exceed NIS 130 billion.

According to the analysis, even if the projects are spread over a 15 year period, the annual expenditure will exceed by NIS 5 billion the annual budgeted funding for transportation development.

Officials at the Finance Ministry argue that the proposal does not offer any solutions for linking towns on the periphery to urban centers, in spite of the fact that 95 percent of the public travel in metropolitan areas.

The proposed roads, including those on the periphery, are not necessarily those needed for effective transportation, critics say.

They argue that the railroad lines being proposed also fail to match needs and are not expected to create significant demand by travelers.

Treasury officials are concerned that the government is pushing ahead with transportation projects that exceed budgets and will not be useful.

They say that while economic feasibility studies have not been completed it is already clear that there are doubts about the cost-effectiveness of the projects.

One examples cited by the Finance Ministry is the lack of estimates for passenger demand for a rail line to Kiryat Shmona.

Regarding a rail service to Eilat from central Israel, the ministry estimates its cost at NIS 8.6 billion.

One of the noteworthy shortcomings of the project, the ministry says, is that it will not offer a daily service. Ministry experts propose an alternative plan, which calls for upgrading existing main roads in northern and southern Israel instead of building new roads. With regards to railroads, they are calling for significantly upgrading the rail system connecting the four metropolitan areas of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Be'er Sheva.

Treasury staff warn that not dealing with crowded roadways in central Israel will undermine economic growth in coming years. Regarding improving the rapid connections between the center and the periphery, they argue that upgrading existing roads and making more buses available would speed up traffic to rates comparable with Israel Railways.

The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying that Netanyahu had decided that discussions on the details of the plan to link the Galilee and the Negev with central Israel should be concluded in the next few days and that the plan would be submitted for cabinet approval on 21 February.