Israel Environment Bulletin Spring 1995-5755, Vol. 18, No. 2

THE TRANS-ISRAEL HIGHWAY

Bane or boon it all depends on one’s point of view. Few national projects have elicited such diametrically opposed views as the Trans-Israel Highway or Road #6. Hailed as Israel’s largest transportation project ever, the highway promises to serve as the country’s major road artery at the dawn of the 21st century. A straight stretch of highway will link Sde Boker in the south with Yokne’am in the north and will then fork into two branches leading to Nahariya and Safed.

Both supporters and opponents assert that the 300-kilometer road will change the face of the country. Proponents claim that the new highway will link peripheral areas to the center of the country, reducing travel time between Beersheba and the center to 40 minutes, between Haifa and the center to 30 minutes. At the same time, it will offer a better, faster and more convenient alternative to drivers who now use the Tel Aviv metropolitan area as a north-south thoroughfare, thus alleviating traffic in the congested central region. Opponents counter that the "superhighway" will precipitate a landscape and environmental disaster, destroying scarce open land reserves, encouraging building in previously agricultural areas, and aggravating air and noise pollution.

On one point, however, all agree: Israel’s transportation system is gravely inadequate to meet the needs of the 21st century. The rate of vehicle growth in Israel (6-7% per year) is among the highest in the world; within less than a decade, over 2 million vehicles will traverse the country’s roads, compared to 1.3 million today. The situation is aggravated by the fact that Israel’s current motorization rate still lags well behind the Western world, some 230 cars per thousand people, but car density for each kilometer of roadway is 90 cars per kilometer, way above Western norms. The conclusion: unless the transportation network is significantly improved, congestion, especially in the center of the country, will soon become unbearable.

History

Developers claim that Road #6 is the most researched and known- about artery in the state’s history. The alignment was first approved as far back as 1976 within the framework of a national masterplan for roads. Traffic surveys and feasibility studies followed at the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s. But the major impetus for precipitating the process of detailed planning was the large wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union which flooded into Israel in the early years of the 1990s. During the course of preparing the National Masterplan for Construction, Development and Immigrant Absorption, Road #6 was reexamined and those sections previously included in the road masterplan were incorporated into the immigration masterplan in order to speed up the timetable for detailed planning.

However, the path toward implementation proved bumpy at best. On the one hand, a special government company, the Trans-Israel Road Company, was created to precipitate implementation; an environmental consultant was hired to integrate environmental standards into the plan; and a preliminary survey of archeological sites along the proposed alignment was commissioned to identify potentially sensitive spots. On the other hand, some 300 objections poured into the National Planning and Building Board as it deliberated on the detailed aspects of the plan, studying each segment for individual approval. The massive wave of protest, especially on the part of agricultural and environmental interests, led to the appointment of a special investigator to conduct hearings on the objections and to present his conclusions to the Planning Board.

Today, after over two years of painstaking deliberations, approvals have been granted for most segments of the controversial central section, the first stretch of road due for construction. The government, on its part, has approved the Trans-Israel Highway Law which allows for a speedy process of land expropriation (with full compensation) to hasten construction.

Green Opposition

Is there a "down side" to drastically reduced travel time from the north or south of the country to the employment hub in the center? Yes, say environmentalists. From reservations to hard-core opposition, nearly all of Israel’s "green" bodies have taken a stance against the massive scope of the proposed road.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), Israel’s largest environmental non-governmental organization, has launched one of its biggest public campaigns ever in opposition to the highway in its present configuration. While recognizing the vital need to improve the transportation system in Israel, the SPNI and other green bodies have claimed that a "superhighway" is by no means appropriate for a small country such as Israel, already one of the most densely populated countries in the world north of the Negev. Such a highway will speed up the rate of private motorization rather than promote public transportation. It will entice people to move to the suburbs while promoting urban sprawl. It will generate environmental problems such as noise, air pollution and visual blight. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it will "gobble up" Israel’s scarce and precious land reserves, especially in the center where demand for land is high and land reserves are few.

An especially sore point for environmentalists was the December 1994 decision to approve the eastern alignment of section 13, a 23- kilometer stretch between the Ben Shemen forest and Rosh Ha’ayin. Faced with the difficult choice of approving a western alignment which would pass relatively close to settlements in the region, and an eastern alignment, which would enter the last reserve of open space in the center of the country, the National Planning and Building Board opted for the latter to the consternation of many environmentalists.

Indeed, of all sections of the controversial road southern, central and northern the central stretch has elicited the staunchest opposition. In this section, the road will include four lanes in each direction (with service roads on either side). Between Gedera and Tul-Karem, along some 63 kilometers, 13 three- level interchanges are planned with less than five kilometers between each interchange. Nine of these are to be concentrated within a section of 26 kilometers (between Ramle and Kfar Saba). The entire road strip, whose width will exceed 100 meters, will require at least 10 hectares of land for each kilometer of length and between 20-100 hectares for each interchange.

On the Legal Front

While the bulk of protest has centered around public campaigns and opposition within the planning system, the struggle did not stop there. The Israel Union for Environmental Defense (UED), supported by six leading Israeli academics from environmental disciplines and Mr. Yosef Tamir, chairman of Life and Environment, Israel’s umbrella organization for environmental NGOs, took the case to the High Court of Justice. The petition, submitted in May 1994 soon after approval of the plan by the National Planning and Building Board, called for disqualification of the decision to approve the massive project without a comprehensive environmental impact statement (five site-specific EISs were commissioned instead). The UED claimed that by treating the plan in sections, rather than as an overall project, the National Planning and Building Board circumvented the need for an environmental assessment covering the entire project and thereby abrogated the public’s "right-to-know" about the environmental impacts of the road as a whole. The petitioners called for an overall examination of alternatives to the road plan, including a railroad system or expansion of the existing road system, and asked respondents to relate to the totality of anticipated impacts: diminishing land reserves, increase in road accidents, increase in vehicular air pollution, damage to public transport systems, degradation of groundwater, harm to wildlife, and urban sprawl.

The Supreme Court, in its initial judgment, issued a "show-cause" order giving the respondents 60 days to explain why they had not ordered a complete EIS for the entire length of the highway. To date, the case is still pending. While three additional expert affidavits were added to the UED’s initial petition in October 1994, the Court has postponed its final ruling until June 1995.

The Environment Ministry’s Stance

The Ministry of the Environment, on its part, has supported the establishment of a major road along the alignment of Road #6 but with reservations. The ministry supports the idea of a north-south axis as a means of linking the periphery to the center of the country; it believes, furthermore, that an outer ring road for the Greater Tel Aviv area should ameliorate traffic congestion in the central metropolitan area. At the same time, however, the ministry has worked long and hard to incorporate environmental measures into the detailed planning process in order to minimize damage to natural and landscape resources and reduce exposure to noise and air pollution. It has taken an active part in the planning process for the highway from the outset.

Ministry of the Environment officials first participated in the initial discussions on the road and its interchanges within the framework of the masterplan for immigrant absorption. Participation then continued within the National Planning and Building Board, its subcommittees and interdisciplinary teams. Ministry experts checked initial proposals, made recommendations to the planning teams, reviewed the documents submitted by the road planning teams, and participated in the decision making process.

Since deliberations focused on specific sections of the alignment which was already approved in the national masterplans for roads and immigrant absorption, five site-specific EISs were requested rather than an overall EIS for the entire road. For the first time ever, a two-stage EIS process was undertaken in Israel: assessment of alternative alignments on the macro level in the first stage, and an EIS for the preferred alternative on a micro level in the second stage. For some thirty additional sections, where potential landscape or noise impacts were anticipated, environmental studies were required.

Supervision of the implementation of the plan, including its environmental aspects, will be undertaken by a team appointed by the National Board. The implementation team includes a representative of the Ministry of the Environment along with representatives of the National Planning Board, the Public Works Department and the district planner of the Ministry of the Interior.

Environmental Input

The campaign launched by Israel’s greens against the "superhighway" did not bring about cancellation of the massive project, but it did lead to the incorporation of environmental elements into National Board decisions. As a direct result of the persistent demands of such organizations as the Ministry of the Environment and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the National Board called for the following: preparation of a comprehensive transportation masterplan for Israel, with a full review of transportation systems and policy, including rail, subway and other forms of public transportation; a land-use masterplan along the road corridor (5 kilometers along each side) to guide land-use changes; and inclusion of principles for minimizing environmental impacts in the implementation documents of Road #6.

On the other hand, demands for approval of the plan in stages to facilitate better control and analysis of goal fulfillment and to provide opportunities for the integration of other transportation solutions in the future were rejected. Planning in stages would have allowed for approval of a more modest road plan in the first stage while postponing decisions on the further expansion of the road (type and range of interchanges, number of lanes, alternative transportation schemes) to later stages of construction. While persistent demands by the Ministry of the Environment led to a reexamination of the issue by the National Board, only minor modifications were made. While the Board reconfirmed its original decision to approve all sections and junctions of the highway in their full and final form, it recognized the need for control mechanisms to oversee the development stages of the specific sections and interchanges of the road. The timetable for future stages will be approved by the team accompanying implementation on the basis of transportation forecasts and their impacts.

Conclusion

Boon or bane? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain. The road controversy has highlighted the need for comprehensive planning of Israel’s transportation needs at the advent of a new century. Until such time that the EIS is transformed from a site- specific, project-specific tool to a strategic-level assessment document, long-term comprehensive planning, which takes account of all considerations social, transportation, environmental and economic is imperative. In light of its diminishing land reserves and increasing environmental pollution, Israel must place transportation planning, and especially the promotion of an efficient system of public transportation, high on its list of priorities.