The TransRun project would provide a new, faster rail link between Neuchâtel and watch-making centre La Chaux-de-Fonds.
At a budgeted 830 million francs, the line largely running through tunnels would cut time for the train trip by half to 14 minutes from the current route.
Together with other regional improvements costing 89 million francs, TransRun is designed to improve rail travel to other cities, such as Biel, Bern, Fribourg and Lausanne.
Philippe Gnaegi, head of the cantonal government and a member of the right-of-centre Liberal-Radical party, called the proposal “a good project, validated by experts” at a press conference on Monday.
A referendum on the project is set for September 23rd.
The government and an overwhelming majority of MPs in the canton’s parliament back TransRun as indispensable for the future of Neuchâtel’s economy.
But opponents, including members of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, have mounted a vociferous campaign against the project.
They argue that it is unaffordable and will leave the canton heavily in debt.
Supporters say the costs are manageable, with the federal government and Swiss Federal Railways, the state-owned rail company, picking up 349 million francs of the tab.
The remainder would be divided between the canton (60 percent) and participating municipalities (40 percent).
To allay financial concerns, the cantonal government has promised to run balanced budgets during the 25-year period it would take to repay financing for the project.
If approved, the new network would be completed by 2022.
The cantonal government says the project is crucial in making Neuchâtel a more attractive place to live and invest in by improving mobility and bringing the canton’s most important cities closer together.
La Chaux-de-Fonds, awarded world heritage status by Unesco along with Le Locle in 2009, is famous for its planned residential and manufacturing buildings, designed in the 19th century after a fire to meet the needs of watch-making firms.
Its physical separation from Neuchâtel is enhanced by a marked difference in elevation.
Located in the Jura mountains at an altitude of 1,000 metres, La Chaud-de-Fonds (population 38,000) is 570 metres above Neuchâtel, a city of 34,000 overlooking Lake Neuchâtel.
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