At one of the cabinet meetings that discussed the Eilat railway project, professionals in the field warned that the costs of the project were reaching huge proportions. The original estimate of about NIS 7 billion has not been relevant for a long while with the latest estimates around the NIS 20 billion mark or even more.
However, this does not bother Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He reportedly confided in a colleague, "Tell me when it reaches NIS 100 billion."
What is it about a railway to Eilat that makes the prime minister ready to grant it unlimited credit? Does Israel have a budget surplus? Is the Israeli economy slowing down too much? It's certainly not that all the transportation problems in the center of the country have been solved while a light railway for Greater Tel Aviv is still a distant dream.
The voices protesting the jams in central Israel are not penetrating through the thick walls of the prime minister's office. Netanyahu deals with strategy not transportation. He sees Eilat as a strategic junction on the world trade routes map. He believes that the route between Eilat and Ashdod and Eilat and Haifa can serve as an alternative to the Suez Canal. He wants to let the Chinese build the railways and believes it will give them a connection to Israel, and that he can do this without creating problems with the US or Egypt.
In order to build a strategic trade route it is enough to build one track for cargo trains. For this plan there is also, wonder of wonders, a certain economic logic. But Netanyahu and Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz insist on a double track that can also transport passengers at 250 kilometers per hour, almost like Japan's bullet train and France's TGV. This insistence pushes up the cost of the project and to say that it becomes not economically viable is an understatement. Nowhere in the world, even in prosperous Japan, does anybody build a rapid rail link to a city of 60,000 people. Nowhere in the world would such a grandiose project be built alongside a new international airport that will compete for the same passenger public.
Katz and Netanyahu are doing it because they can. Building a railway to Dimona had no economic logic but substantial political profit. Less than 20 people travel daily from Beersheva to Dimona but nobody has had to account to the public for the hundreds of millions of shekels buried in the desert. The railway to Afula and Bet Shean will cost NIS 4 billion and that will also become a white elephant. Irresponsibility pays for the politicians and the railway to Eilat is simply the next chapter in this costly story.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on October 6, 2013
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