Editorial

Israel's Flagship Train to Nowhere

The cost of the Tel Aviv light rail could rise by as much as an additional 2 billion shekels, and might not be finished until 2023.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at a construction site for the Tel Aviv Light Rail, August 2016.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at a construction site for the Tel Aviv Light Rail, August 2016. Moti Milrod

In December 2010, the government voted to adopt Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz’s proposal to nationalize the light-rail project in the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area, following the failure of the franchisee to raise the necessary funding. The ministers voted unanimously to allocate 10.7 billion shekels ($2.8 billion) to the government company NTA, under Katz’s authority, to “bring the system into full operation no later than 2017.” Placing the power and resources in the hands of a relatively anonymous government company was the signal to embark on a spate of political appointments and financial irregularities, which ended with oversight reports, dismissals and suspicions of wrongdoing.

By the time the company got back on track, the project’s costs had spiraled to 16.1 billion shekels and its inauguration date pushed back to 2021. But as Avi Bar-Eli reported in TheMarker on Sunday, following the failure of two international tenders issued recently by NTA, even these goals are no longer attainable. Responses to the tender to lay the rail tracks came in at 2.5 times the budget for the project, among other things after NTA apparently ignored repeated claims of problems with the tenders. The tender to select an operator for the train was frozen just before it due to close and postponed to an unknown date following difficulties in finding foreign companies, who were deterred by the project.

According to updated estimates, the cost of the Tel Aviv light rail could rise by as much as an additional 2 billion shekels, and might not be finished until 2023. The reasons for this bleak scenario start with professional neglect, proceed on to intergovernmental ego struggles and conclude with the absence of a strong hand at the helm.

Minister Katz knew how to demand public attention when the Ma’ariv Bridge was demolished in August 2015, at which time he declared that the era of waiting for the light rail had come to an end. Like Katz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ensures that he is always cutting the ribbons at festive ceremonies marking transportation projects, while Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon takes credit for funding them.

But politicians in Israel believe in the method of “launch and forget.” The ministers are only seen when cornerstones are being laid for projects and then later at their inauguration. They have no patience for the professional responsibility and leadership that must be displayed along the way. They get behind a project only when the funding is being raised. But once the money is there, they abandon it – even when the companies implementing the work cry out for help.

In the same way that they – rightly – know how to demand public credit for launching mass-transport projects, Katz, Netanyahu and Kahlon must now stand before the public to explain why Israel’s flagship project has been failing for six years, all while imposing unnecessary costs of billions of shekels on the public purse.