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Haifa has for all practical purposes given up on the idea of a light-rail train, but starting in 2010, it will be the first of the three big cities to offer its citizens an advanced mass transit system. The first stage of the city's Matronit urban mass transit project will open today on Ha'atzmaut Street.

The new mass transit system for the country's third-largest city and its northern suburbs is basically a very large bus running on wheels, which can hold 150-200 passengers. It will have its own special bus lanes, and a set of sensors will automatically change traffic lights on its route to grant the buses priority. The same sensors can also provide passengers accurate information on travel times and stations.

In less than two years, the main Matronit line will start its 25-kilometer route in Bat Galim by the sea, and then travel via the lower city center and through the Haifa Bay area to the Krayot, ending in Kiryat Bialik. Two branch lines will reach Hadar Hacarmel in Haifa and Kiryat Ata. It is being built by the city-owned company Yefe Nof.

Haifa is the only Israeli city with a real underground subway, the Carmelit, built in the 1950s. However, despite improvements in the 1990s, almost no one uses it since the main business areas of the city have moved.

The new system is not electrified, but diesel powered. However, according to Yefe Nof CEO Doron Magid, the new buses meet the strictest new European standards, and also reduces the use of private vehicles, which are the main cause of urban air pollution.

Magid says the lack of electrification and tracks sped up the project enormously, as there was no need for lengthy planning and approval as in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Also, the project will cost only about NIS 1 billion, about 10 percent of Tel Aviv's light-rail project.

Matronit is a play on words - while it sounds like it is based on the English word "Metro," in Hebrew it means a respected woman.