The cornerstone was laid this week for the Cross-Israel Highway project, which has been hailed as the “road of peace” as well as labeled an “environmental disaster.”
The highway, to run about 185 miles from the Galilee to the Negev, has been promoted as an answer to the country’s dire traffic problems.
The project’s estimated cost is $2 billion. Its completion date is set for the year 2010.
Construction has begun on the first phase of the project, a 55-mile stretch of road from Hadera to east of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
The road will be a toll road and will be built and operated by private contractors.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Finance Minister Avraham Shochat and Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer attended the cornerstone-laying ceremony Tuesday near Ben Shemen, which is between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Peres praised the project as a major step toward easing traffic congestion and nurturing development in the south of the country by drawing the population away from the crowded center.
He also expressed hope that the read “would become part of the road to peace in the entire Middle East” as part of an overland route linking Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Syria and Lebanon.
However, the project has met significant resistance since its start in 1992 from groups concerned about environmental damage and the highway’s effectiveness as a solution to Israel’s overcrowded roads.
In July, environmental groups unsuccessfully petitioned the High Court of Justice to block the construction.
Several dozen activists demonstrated near the ceremony site on Tuesday.
“This road is going to pass through the only green land left in central Israel,” said Orit Navo of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “We think it won’t solve any transportation problems.
“In a couple of years, that road will be blocked as well. With this time and money they should focus their efforts both building roads and developing public transportation.”
But Ben-Eliezer said builders would try to preserve the landscape and take environmental factors into account as much as possible.
He added, “Every year, 142,000 more cars are on the roads. Imagine what might happen if we do not start building this road for another six or seven years.”