The Bottom Line /Taken for a Ride

While on vacation once in Mexico, I drove along the plush, straight, wide, comfortable toll road that cuts across the country from East to West. We drove and drove, almost alone on the highway. When I looked around, I saw loads of cars and trucks driving slowly in their multitudes on the old narrow road, which the new highway was supposed to replace. The Mexican public was simply not prepared to pay the toll. And now we are approaching Mexico's situation.

Yehuda Wilk, CEO of the Trans-Israel Highway operators, claims, however, that the traffic is "above expectations." But we know that the traffic is miserably thin compared to the highway's full potential.

The basic principle of the Trans-Israel Highway was to bypass the center of the country, so that someone traveling from Ashdod to Hadera, or Jerusalem to Haifa needn't pass through the bottlenecks of the central region. Now everyone knows that the population density in Israel is far higher than in most western nations, but that the number of vehicles per person is comparatively low. And everyone knows that the government habitually under-invests in roads and trains because, cynically, the red ribbon will always be cut by some other minister in some later government.

And when they do finally decide to pave a new highway, they go about the funding in the wrong way. Every economist knows that the moment any driver takes the new road, he increases the utility of every other driver throughout the rest of the country. He reduces the "negative externalities" of driving through the center. He helps improve fuel consumption, lowers levels of wear and tear, cuts the journey time of others, relieves the bottlenecks, cuts down on accidents, reduces noise and pollution, lowers costs of production and encourages growth in the economy. So the aim of the Finance Ministry should have been to encourage the use of Highway No.6.

But no, the wise men of the treasury decided on exactly the opposite approach. They decided to cut down on the number of drivers by charging a toll. The result is that the road will never be fully utilized.

In July 1998, when the Knesset Economics Committee approved the toll structure, I wrote that the move was a fundamental flaw. But no one in the treasury listened. They were more interested in building a perfect collection system that today consumes a healthy percentage of the revenues.

The entire toll system should be scrapped; and the private investors should be refunded from taxes, in the same way that the government finance every other investment in roads, intersections, interchanges, trains and other infrastructure. Thus, we will prevent the absurdity of the highway not being fully utilized and not helping to reduce the traffic jams in the center. It should also put an end to the injustice of allowing those with means to travel, while those without can't.

And by the way, how can a government that manages to finance the expensive "Tunnels Road" in the territories claim it cannot afford to build the Trans-Israel Highway?