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For years the Tel Aviv metropolitan area that stretches from Petah Tikva through Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv itself, all the way to Bat Yam, has been waiting for the construction of an underground mass transit system that would clear up the traffic congestion, the attendant noise and pollution that plague the area.

The unending delays in the project have been imposing great economic penalties on the country and have lead to accelerated urban sprawl with businesses and residents escaping the Tel Aviv metropolitan area for outlying regions as far away as Rosh Ha'ayin, exporting traffic congestion and pollution into the suburbs, without in any way easing the overall situation.

It is another example of the civil servants in the treasury's budget division and those in the Transportation Ministry being prepared to take the right decision only after having exhausted all other alternatives.

For years they have been fighting tooth and nail over the mass transit project for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. At first they delayed the project by insisting that the solution to the traffic problems in the area was buses and more buses. In an attempt to prove their point, they wasted money on soliciting second and third opinions from consulting companies abroad hoping to find one that might back their anachronistic views.

When they finally gave up on the bus solution, their second line of defense was Light Rail Transport - adding to the cars, taxis and buses on the overcrowded streets another vehicle moving on rails. When this harebrained scheme met with objections from the mayors of the affected municipalities, they conceded that a small part of the projected LRT line would be allowed to run underground.

Now, in a rearguard action, causing further delays in the project, they are fighting to make the underground section of the line as short as possible. In the meantime, traffic bottlenecks are increasing, valuable time is being wasted in congested streets, the air is being polluted and nerves are being frayed.

The latest news is that the National Planning Council has approved the construction of an underground section of the project running through Bnei Brak, over the objections of Transportation Ministry civil servants. And so it goes. They will fight every additional underground section of the project, until one fine day they will have to admit that the Tel Aviv metropolitan area needs a proper underground railway - a metro.

Although losing every battle, these civil servants are winning the war. The delays they are causing are having catastrophic consequences. Time is being wasted, businesses are fleeing the country's commercial center and urban sprawl is turning the center of the country into one large urban area, making a rational solution of the traffic problem almost impossible.

These guys who pride themselves on keeping watch on Israel's bank account are just penny-wise and pound-foolish. They are busy wasting the country's resources.

Cairo has an underground railway, Ankara and Athens have underground railways, but only in Tel Aviv are they still arguing about whether an underground railway is really needed. The Tel Aviv metropolitan area is today one of the most densely populated areas on the globe. The number of private cars per capita is high and growing from year to year. Most of the streets are narrow. You don't have to be a genius to understand that adequate transportation for the area requires a second level, which must be underground.

What has been lacking all these years has been a ministerial directive. Ministers have been changing, while the civil servants remained. It is they and not the ministers who have been making policy. It is high time that the transportation minister and the finance minister direct their subordinates to support the building of a metro for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area - an underground railway all the way, using the latest technology, automatic and driverless, like the newest line on the Paris metro.

It may be advisable to build it in stages, each segment underground, and begin operation of the initial segment while the following segments are being built. It is high time to put an end to obstructions and finally, after so many delays, give this all-important project the boost the citizens of Israel deserve.

The writer was chair of Neta, the Metropolitan Mass Transport System Ltd, in 1997-8.