The Trans-Israel Highway officially goes on the map today, with the formal opening of its first stretch. The highway's planners claim that a major effort and heavy investments have been made to prevent damage to the environment and to furnish transportation solutions. Many of the problems connected to the road are not fully manifest at this stage; they will grow in scope in subsequent stages.
Planners, landscape architects and environmental experts were involved intensively in the highway's construction. These professionals tried to limit landscape damage and noise pollution, and they sponsored the replanting of flora to alternative sites. Officials from the Derech Eretz company, which is responsible for the central stretch of the highway (for which users will pay a toll), have boasted that landscape restoration projects have been carried out on 10,000 dunams.
Yet the highway's long asphalt stretches and the state of the land adjacent to it represent only a small portion of the problems caused by the Trans-Israel Highway - and these are the problems that can be solved. These soluble problems relate to the central stretch of the highway (from Hadera to Gedera, which is being built now), and also stretches planned for the future which are supposed to reach the Western Galilee in the north, and Be'er Sheva in the south.
One of the emerging dangers involves the grid of roads that will crisscross the Trans-Israel Highway in the central region. In large part, the project's success depends upon this grid, since it will be responsible for funneling cars to and from the highway. Under current plans, some of these connecting roads will go straight through the remaining green areas in the coastal region, areas that are connected river beds and are defined in various ways as vital ecological buffer zones.
Some of these connecting roads are already in use, but there are highways such as Route 9 (which is to funnel into the Trans-Israel Highway from Emek Hefer), or Road No. 551 (which is to connect from southern Netanya), whose construction should be stopped. Though transportation engineers have found a plethora of reasons to warrant their construction, some limit has to be set to prevent a policy of abject surrender to the well-being of the private car. These roads will chop up and damage the vital ecological zones in the coastal area.
It must be emphasized that the amount of green space remaining in the region between Hadera and Gedera, where the majority of Israel's population dwells, is limited. Pressures exerted in favor of sacrificing these green areas on account of the highway's needs and government budget considerations must not take precedence - preserving these green areas has genuine importance.
The most pernicious threat facing Israel's landscape involves the northern stretch of the Trans-Israel Highway, which is yet to be paved. The northern stretch is supposed to connect the Barkai junction and Yokne'am. Authorization for construction of the stretch has already been granted; the only thing left to do is raise a cry of protest to anyone who is willing to listen, in a final attempt to prevent a deep scar from defacing this region's distinctive landscape. The solution must involve the use of tunnels throughout wide stretches of this northern part of the highway - such a solution would, of course, be costly, but it would also be prudent and justified.
Throughout the center of the country, the Trans-Israel Highway is liable to become a magnet attracting real estate entrepreneurs, who will build projects on large areas adjacent to the road. Such projects will accelerate a process of the dispersal of buildings and transportation infrastructure across empty green spaces, rather than the consolidation of construction processes in existing urban areas. Most of Israel's planners have supported the second alternative of consolidating future construction in areas that are already built-up. The result of this dispersal trend will be further traffic jams, caused by the proliferation of private automobiles; the landscape in open spaces will also be disfigured, particularly in the eastern Sharon region, and the Modi'in and Ramot Menashe areas.
The only way to prevent this dispersal process is to reinforce protection afforded by zoning plans in open areas adjacent to the Trans-Israel Highway. The problem is that Israel's planning framework is incessantly besieged by pressure exerted by private entrepreneurs and some government ministries.
The highway is supposed to alleviate transportation problems such as accidents and traffic congestion along the coast; and it is supposed to relocate trucks that convey dangerous materials, moving them away from densely populated areas. It will be only be possible to measure the highway's success in relieving congestion in another 10 years, when it covers a longer stretch. As to the highway's efficacy in reducing accidents, it would be wise to note the repeated warnings of various experts, who caution that the road's high speed limit (110 kph) is a likely recipe for accidents.
As for the argument about relocating trucks, the truth is that the Trans-Israel Highway appears to be a road built exclusively for the welfare of private automobile owners. Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that truck drivers will be forced to pay a toll for the central stretch that is three times higher the fee paid by private car owners? Trucks are liable, heaven forbid, to damage the expensive infrastructure built for private cars, and so the highway's sponsors want the trucks to continue to travel in urban areas.
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