Courtesy of "Ze Ma Yesh", Yokneam local newspaper
By Dvorah Friedman
Section 18 of Highway 6 was opened up at July 27. Prior to the opening of the new section, "Ze Ma Yesh" conducted an exclusive interview with Reuven Lev-On, chief engineer for the Trans-Israel Highway. The highway's story has a bit of everything in it—huge sums of money, human passions, a violent clash of cultures featuring religious extremists on the one hand, and a cultured dialogue with the 'Greens' of Megiddo on the other. The result: unique architectural solutions for preserving landscape and nature. And, mainly, a lot of hope.
On June 27, 2009, section 18 of Highway 6 opened up for traffic. The section runs from Iron interchange to Ein Tut interchange, just a few miles from Eliakim and Yokneam. The road opened up upon the conclusion of a festive inauguration ceremony attended by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Section 18 of Highway 6 has a story with a little something for everyone: huge sums of money that have been invested in it (and even more money the road is supposed to produce); a tinderbox of passions erupting in a violent war of cultures in which religious extremists forced a delay in the road's construction by two years; and yet, at the same time, an amazingly cultured dialogue conducted with the 'Greens' of Megiddo. And the product of this impassioned mix: singular architectural achievements in preserving delicate landscape features and nature. But, for the most part, this is a story of hope.
Residents of the region in particular and of the north in general have awaited this moment for years, where the north would be brought closer to central Israel. The route of Highway 6 was determined way back in 1976. The government of Israel granted approval to the establishment of the Trans-Israel Highway in 1992, followed by founding of the Trans-Israel Highway Company in 1993. Construction began at the end of 1999; and, in 2002, two of the highway's first stages opened up. In 2004, the highway ran through to the Iron interchange, making Wadi Ara road among the country's most congested thoroughfares.
The next section of the road, section 18, running from Iron interchange to Ein Tut interchange, was supposed to have been finished in 2006. But the discovery of an ancient Jewish burial site next to Kibbutz Regavim combined with a bitter struggle by extreme orthodox religious elements, who opposed any suggestion of relocating the graves, delayed construction by two and a half years. The delay they caused eventually led to costs being inflated by NIS 80–90 million. In all, estimated investment in the almost 10 miles of section 18 totals NIS 1.2 billion, the highest investment per mile for the highway.
The toll expressway will make it possible to get from Yokneam to Tel Aviv in 40 to 50 minutes, in essence making Yokneam, Megiddo, Kiryat Tivon, Jezreel Valley, and Ramat Yishai a part of Central Israel. The opening of the road is expected to have enormous implications for the economic development of the region in industry, commerce, and real estate—for the benefit of all residents. Traveling on this section of road will cost about NIS 4.50 for subscribers. Just before the opening of the road, I spoke with chief engineer for the Trans-Israel Highway, Reuven Lev-On, about the uniqueness of section 18 of the Trans-Israel Highway.
We Counted the Flowers
Paving and building section 18 of Highway 6 presented Derech Eretz, the project concessionaire, with unique challenges, mainly because the road traverses the Megiddo Regional Council and the biosphere reserve located within its boundaries.
Reuven Lev-On: "This is a section of road that is 9.9 miles long, including the Nili Tunnel, which is about 435 yards in length. It is an artificial tunnel, the first of its kind in Israel. Moreover, another tunnel, the Dalia Tunnel, measuring 164 yards in length and located south of Nahal Dalia, was built to serve ecological needs. The object of the tunnels is to afford safe passage over the highway to the area's wildlife. Moreover, the portals to the tunnel are of a unique architectural design."
"This section of road presented us with an unprecedented challenge—building an expressway that passes through an extremely sensitive area in terms of landscape and nature. It involved an elaborate series of planning and construction moves aimed at protecting the Megiddo biosphere reserve through which the road passes. Thus this section comprises not only tunnels, but 1.5 miles of bridges. Our entire design and planning conception was of a stretch of road to 'hover' over the area."
"We made a huge investment in the sphere of landscape-design, starting from the bottom—from protected areas of unique vegetation where we transferred geophytes (onions and bulbs) from along the road's path and moved them further up the escarpment to preserve that particular landscape feature. The entire road-design effort resulted in a huge surplus of earth, about 1.95 million cubic yards of it. In a joint effort of the Israel Land Administration, the Ministry of the Environment, and the Kfar Kara council, we located a huge refuse site measuring almost 100 acres, Norait, and turned it into a nature park using the excess earth."
As Lev-On describes the endeavor, one detects a sense of pride in these amazing achievements; but one must bear in mind that all of these great investments were made following a resolute struggle waged by the 'Greens' of Megiddo, mainly a legal battle against the Trans-Israel Highway. But ultimately, a compromise was reached: not the 4-1/3 miles of tunnels demanded by the 'Greens', but a series of multiple actions intended for preserving sustainable natural features. One of the most conspicuous of these was the preservation of geophytes—wild plant bulbs and onions situated in the territory of the Megiddo Regional Council.
The Israelflora firm was hired for the geophyte project, conducted in the area of Ramat Menashe Park and Kibbutz Ramot Menashe. The goal was to save thousands of rare and protected flowers including: orchids, O. fuciflora, mountain tulips, Biarum, irises, and primrose, prior to the paving of the road, followed by replanting them in their original locations.
The geophytes, most of them rare and protected plants, were carefully turned over, sorted, and temporarily planted in an alternative location before returning them to their original location. Each orchid, fuciflora, mountain tulip, Biarum and iris situated along the route was counted. The rarest of flowers were marked individually and assigned map coordinates. The tulips and primrose, which can be found in large numbers, were charted as aggregates. Israflora undertook to transfer 8,500 bulbs of various flowers and temporarily house them until being replanted along the route of the Trans-Israel Highway. It was clear to everyone involved in the project that not every single bulb or geophytes could be saved; but they made every effort to preserve a critical mass that would serve as a basis for reflowering the edges of the road.
One has to understand that each geophyte invests a great deal of effort in its survival. The mountain tulip for example blossoms for the first time after five to seven years—only after having created a tiny 1/3 inch bulb. When the Israflora team excavated bulbs measuring 4 inches in diameter, it meant that the tulips had already been in the ground for twenty years.
It would have been much simpler and cheaper to purchase a few thousand orchids and tens of thousands of primroses from plant nurseries; but by returning the original plants, the area's genetic material was preserved within the original terrain. The use of original earth ensures the germination of seeds of simple non-geophyte plants (e.g. grains and other perennials and annuals) and that their seeds remain within the earth in anticipation of sprouting.
The Country Capitulated
While Lev-On expresses satisfaction and pride in the coexistence achieved through his vital services—building the expressway while at the same time honoring landscape and natural features—he still sounds an angry note when the story of the graves near Regavim comes up. "The country surrendered and was humiliated," he says plainly and simply," and, as a result, it continues to give in. We're talking about an area near Kibbutz Regavim, where a cemetery was discovered. There was no argument that it was a Jewish burial site. But the winners in this story were the most extreme of individuals, led by a body called Atra Kadisha, which dragged Rabbi Eliashiv into the story. The whole thing was futile; there was no one to talk to on this. During that time, the homes of directors of the Trans-Israel Highway were attacked, including my home, and telephoned murder threats were also made."
"We're deep in the midst of a violent cultural war and the public should be aware of that. We worked opposite the Tzomet Institute, a religious but non-extremist orthodox organization. I have in my possession a wealth of sources whose conclusion is: not only is it permitted to relocate graves, but it is a duty if it involves public needs. The trouble is that the government of Israel caved in entirely. One of the most serious outcomes of this capitulation is the freezing of the expansion of Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon."
"In contrast with understandings reached with the 'Greens' for example, it took two years until a solution (coerced) was found—that components of the road already constructed had to be demolished. The country put in an additional NIS 80–90 million in the name of meaningless dismantlement and construction. Whoever passes the road won't understand the back-story. Some people suggested putting up a sign; I said the sign had to read: "Here was buried 80 million shekels."
A Huge Sum of Money
"The estimate is that NIS 1.2 billion was invested in section 18 of the highway." explains Lev-On. "It's a lot more expensive per average mile than other sections when counting the cost of the tunnels and bridges. Even the matter of the excess earth was an expensive deal; we could have built earthen embankments that would have been much cheaper than conveying it all to another location. Thirty percent of costs were received from a national budget and seventy percent from extra-budgetary sources via Derech Eretz, the project concessionaire."
Yokneam, Megiddo, Carmel Township, Kiryat Tivon, and Ramat Yishai are supposed to be the biggest beneficiaries of Highway 6. Among the reasons for the success of Yokneam's industrial zones was the promise of Highway 6; it's what brought numerous industrial concerns here. The forthcoming industrial park, Mavo Carmel, to be shared by Yokneam, Megiddo, and Carmel Township and whose establishment will begin soon, is also a consequence of Highway 6—the catalyst for the concept and its hoped-for success."
"Plans to renovate and expand the Hadrachim shopping center, too, were founded on Highway 6 and, according to the original plan, work was supposed to have been completed some time ago. Let's hope that the opening of the road will speed up construction, which should have begun right now and was supposed to end within eight to twelve months."
"In Ramat Yishai, the development of an employment zone is founded in no small part on Highway 6, which is expected to bring numerous travelers here from central and southern Israel. In Kiryat Tivon they're also considering various development plans, for example in the area of the gas plant in order to capitalize on the influx of travelers. According to all of the projections, the highway will eventually stimulate a rise in real estate prices throughout the region, since Yokneam, Kiryat Tivon, and Ramat Yishai will no longer be able to be considered as peripheral locations. Those places will be included as part of central Israel, with traveling time from Yokneam to Tel Aviv being no longer than traveling from Herzliya to Tel Aviv during rush hour."
Beyond that, the significance of section 18 of Highway 6 is that the entire north is now closer to the center of the country, and that a much larger portion of traffic from the north to central Israel will run through Highway 6. According to Lev-On, the estimate is that at least 40% of traffic currently departing from Iron interchange will run though the new thoroughfare. One must also remember that many drivers who travel to the north shy away from the traffic jams that await them when embarking from Iron interchange, and have therefore avoided using Highway 6 up to now.
Will There be Traffic Jams?
The lone aspect of Highway 6 that worries residents of Yokneam is the fear of traffic jams entering and exiting the city during rush hour. Lev-On refused to estimate the volume of traffic on highway 70 after the opening of the new section of Highway 6, saying only that they were intending to conduct a traffic survey following the opening of the road. This way, precise information will be obtained rather than merely estimates. "We warned the Public Works Department about this issue one and a half years ago," reveals Lev-On, "and they took up the challenge. They invested millions of shekels in upgrading and expanding highway 70 and Hatishbi Junction. They added lanes, added a junction next to the Osem plant, created a synchronous 'green wave' of traffic lights, changed the layout of Hatishbi Junction. It's still possible to 'tweak' the system of traffic lights, but according to all estimates, the above changes will respond to most of the needs over the next four or five years." As might be recalled, the Yokneam local council had already embarked on a struggle in this issue four years ago; but the warnings from the Trans-Israel Highway Company certainly did no harm.
And what about the next stage of Highway 6? They're speculating about a tunnel that will run from the industrial zone, near the entrance to Yokneam through to Tel Kashish. They're also talking about a large interchange at the entrance to Yokneam and a giant, three-story high interchange at Hatishbi Junction.
Lev-On: "First of all we have to put things in order. We're talking about two different plans, exclusive of each other: The first belongs to the Trans-Israel Highway Company and the second to the Public Works Department. The government of Israel will have to decide which one to choose."
"The plan to continue Highway 6 from Ein Tut interchange to Tel Kashish involves section 7 of Highway 6. It begins next to Osem, where it creates an entrance interchange, continues along the base of the mountain, runs over the cemetery to the Sultam industrial zone, and enters the tunnel next to Sultam, finishing up in the Tel Kashish area. An interchange will be located there, leading to Amakim Junction (Jalameh), a branch of highway 77 ending up at Alonim Junction and the entrance to Kfar Yehoshua. According to this plan, highway 70 will remain a local road to Yokneam."
The plan of the Public Works Department is to build an interchange in Yokneam and a three-story high interchange at Hatishbi, making section 7 redundant and calling into question the continuation of Highway 6. The question that the Israeli government must decide upon in the near future and which comprises political, engineering, and economic aspects is: Will Highway 6 continue until Shlomi or will it terminate in Eliakim? If the working assumption and preparations of the Public Works Department are reasonable, then expansion and changes in the area of Yokneam and Hatishbi must, as mentioned, survive for four or five years, with an interchangeable solution ready within six to eight years. The project we're proposing—section 7 including the tunnel—demands a year and a half of planning and statutory preparations, followed by three years of construction.
Yokneam city engineer Mike Sakah is currently working with the Public Works Department on plans for the Yokneam and Hatishbi interchanges. It's likely that as far as Yokneam is concerned, there would be a certain economic advantage if Highway 6 ended at Ein Tut interchange—on condition an adequate response would be found to the expected traffic burden. However the needs of the north, without a doubt, dictate the continuation of Highway 6. Yokneam, too, has no small interest in reducing traffic on highway 70, with or without an interchange at its entrance (rather than leaving the city's entrance prey to the numerous vehicles traveling northward, with the accompanying pollution and traffic congestion).
In any case, the various ramifications of Highway 6 will soon be revealed: the convenience, the beauty, the economic prospects, and solutions to various concerns. And, in the foreseeable future, also whether the hopes that were pinned on the highway were justified.
Simon Alfassi on Highway 6:
The strip of new road will transform the localities along its route into an integral part of the map of market demand. Yokneam, which today is already benefiting from economic development and exceptional prosperity will, upon the opening of the road, receive an additional boost—in the areas of real estate and increased interest of entrepreneurs, investors, contractors, and purchasers of dwellings.
Despite the fact the road's northern section hasn't yet opened up to the public, its influence is being felt in the local real estate market. In recent years, Yokneam has seen a significant rise in prices. In 2004, the price of houses rose by tens of percentage points. For example, relatively new cottages measuring 1,500 sq feet are today being sold for NIS 1.2 – 1.4 million; those same homes were being sold in 2004 for 850–800 thousand shekels.
In the area known as the 'Hamoshava Hachadasha' (Heb. 'the new village'), home to the Green Roofs project in Yokneam's newer neighborhoods (adjacent to the beautiful Valley of Peace nature reserve) construction is underway and demand is extremely high. The city's sudden closeness to central Israel upon the opening of this section of road will have immense significance. Anyone will be able to travel, within 45 minutes, from Yokneam to Petach Tikva. That's an amazing fact.
In addition to the anticipated real estate boom, a further advantage is materializing: centers of employment. Yokneam contains a developed hi-tech industrial park that includes 120 firms engaged in development, production, and, mainly, export of technologies and biotechnologies which are among the world's most advanced.
The industrial park employs about 12,000 people and exports on a scale of three billion dollars per year. With the opening of the highway section, the park is expected to undergo accelerated development—containing within it and under its umbrella additional plants, and supplying employment and job positions to numerous citizens.